Life keeps changing, a fact that Hansen-Løve’s carefully considered film takes as a challenge and a pleasure, rather than grounds for anxiety or dismay.
Paul Verhoeven’s recent Elle finds Isabelle Huppert fighting back against a shadowy tormentor, whose brutal bullying, conducted through a campaign of sexual assault and stalker intimidation, acts as an amplified version of the patriarchal strictures which attempt to keep women’s lives under strict control. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, meanwhile, finds another Huppert protagonist facing down a similar crisis, albeit one conveyed in completely opposite terms, the dark psychosexual thriller swapped out for a talky reckoning of tragedies, small and large, across the span of one ordinary woman’s late middle-age. It’s interesting to consider these two films, released less than a month apart, in tandem, specifically the steely, quietly expressive performances Huppert offers in both. Together they form a twined study of bristly female characters reaffirming the existential realization of their essential loneliness, while also gaining a deeper understanding of the significance of their relationships with others.
Here, Huppert plays Nathalie Chazeaux, an intellectual who teaches philosophy to high school students, empathizing with their penchant for social protest but not always agreeing with their methods. Her husband, also a teacher, is a fellow veteran of the ‘68 barricades, and the two live out a cozy, left-leaning bourgeois existence. Their children are now out of the house, a spacious, sun-soaked Paris apartment whose walls are lined with books. Those books are significant, beyond Nathalie pulling one down every so often to reference a bit of recalled wisdom. They represent accumulated wisdom but also baggage, the sort of psychic weight the heroine will be forced to account for as the film’s parade of events unfold.
What’s discovered as she endures this process is that while shedding certain amenities of an established life are painful, they can also lead to the rediscovery of one’s essential character. Each of the conflicts Nathalie passes through represents some feature of her comfortable existence she needs to escape in order to find a truer self. This occurs not didactically, however, but in a warm, Rohmer-esque procession of gently conducted conversations. Gorgeous and finely wrought, Løve’s film bathes in sunny warmth and offers benevolence to even its worst offenders, giving all incidental characters the benefit of the doubt, in keeping with its specific focus on the shaping of self. Like Eden and Goodbye, First Love, it’s a film about ellipses, with most of the big narrative stuff not directly depicted, in order to structure small scenes around quiet everyday moments and bits of residual aftermath.
Yet those previous films were primarily about youth, captured through the prism of two different forms of heartbreak, both gradual, which pushed their protagonists toward another necessary stage of growth. Such a bildungsroman structure is common in modern movies, but it’s rare to see a story about a character late in life that doesn’t either treat it’s conflict as a referendum on all their previous decisions or a final struggle leading toward a definitive resolution. Things to Come places its protagonist at a familiar critical juncture but never treats its plot developments as cataclysmic, even when they’re touching on death, estrangement and divorce.
In short, this is melodrama conveyed through a realist, character-anchored lens, a quiet film which manages to entertain a large number of significant narrative developments without ever coming off as anything but casual. It sidesteps cliche and over-determinism in equal measure, resolving conflicts in a manner that continues to give primacy to Nathalie while offering the specific perspective of the other characters involved. By the end, much has changed, from the makeup of Nathalie’s household to the cover design of the philosophy book series she favors, but there’s no air of absolute finality about any of it. Life keeps changing, a fact that Hansen-Løve’s carefully considered film takes as a challenge and a pleasure, rather than grounds for anxiety or dismay.