There’s a fine line between habit and rote repetition. This is something that slowly dawns on Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), the Philosophy teacher and mother of two at the center of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come. She loves her kids. She loves her husband (André Marcon). She loves her job. She tolerates her needy mother (Edith Scob) and her mother’s cat. It’s a comforting life, one of little stress and plenty of opportunity to publish books and mentor a former pupil turned writer, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). But life has a funny way of throwing a few curve balls into batting practice, and for Nathalie they come quick and numerous. Her husband leaves her for another woman. Students protesting the school system and its perceived role in wage and career stagnation disrupt her teaching. Her publisher drops and heavily re-edits her books due to lack of interest and sales. And her mother, suffering from a particularly histrionic form of depression, demands a level of care akin to a full time job, and demands it only from her daughter. A life of relaxed contemplation (the dream of the philosopher) has been taken from her. Robbed of structure and comfort, Nathalie is suddenly faced with a level of freedom and uncertainty she hasn’t felt in decades. And it terrifies her.
We often take the concept of freedom (real freedom, not the illusion or understanding of freedom in an abstract sense) for granted, seeing it as a sort of inalienable right turned nebulous safety blanket while we retreat into the structure of the familiar. But when the familiar is ripped away, when freedom no longer becomes a choice that can be avoided, it’s a much more daunting prospect. Nathalie confronts her freedom with confusion, frustration and more than a little fear, choosing to counteract the unknown by throwing all her energy into the one aspect of her life not in upheaval, her relationship with Fabien, this middle aged woman running off to visit him, mother’s cast off cat in tow (which she claims to be allergic to, though she sure does spend plenty of time in its company with nary a sniffle -- a projection, it seems), at his anarchist commune in the mountains, finding a bit of solace in surrounding herself with intellectuals again. She is a fish out of water, but she’ll try her hardest to breathe the air even if it couldn’t possibly seem like it could work. It is perhaps akin to reentering the job market at an advanced age (and, to be sure, her publishing prospects mean she’s doing that as well), with preconceived notions about how everything works formed from such a specific point of view even if it isn’t immediately obvious that’s the case.
It’s that hint of condescension in Nathalie’s voice, expression and action that cements Things to Come. This is Huppert’s second dynamic performance of the fall (the fantastic Elle, her collaboration with Paul Verhoeven, is still in theaters), and the way she interacts with the parts of the world trying to bring her down, whether it’s the protesters at school, her publishers that look at her antiquated books and ideas like she’s an alien, or her husband, is so exacting in its pitch to paint the perfect picture of privilege and comfort, setting the stage for her inevitable loss of balance when it starts to crumble. Hansen-Løve, the director of 2014’s EDM-soaked coming of age odyssey Eden, doesn’t revel in Nathalie’s downfall; this isn’t a spiteful picture, but a reflective one, a chance to confront the world with new eyes even when the old ones refuse to give up the ghost in the face of extinction. It’s a smaller film than Eden, taking place over years rather than decades, but it reinforces her interest as both writer and director is predicated on letting her stories breathe and grow organically at the pace of real life. It’s difficult to imagine her not finding kinship in her husband and titan of the French cinema scene, Olivier Assayas, as both share a keen sense that contemplation is the key to building their characters.
Eden felt scattershot at times, spread a little too thin over its long-term storytelling, and she benefits from a sharpened focus in Things to Come. It’s a pretty small story all told, but a stunningly human one, suffused with characters founded on concrete and relatable emotions. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir (who also shot Eden, and quite beautifully) frames the story with a naturalistic style, contrasting the claustrophobic hustle of Paris with the serenity (with a little more than a hint of alienation) of Nathalie’s nature getaway, taking advantage of Huppert’s prodigious skill to establish that she can’t find comfort in either locale. Things to Come does not end with some grand triumph. And why should it? Life rarely does. That’s the real story at the core of Mia Hansen-Løve’s beautiful and empathetic look at life, where everything can turn sour at a moment’s notice, but that’s not the end of the fight. Not by a long shot.