The English title for Mia Hansen-Løve’s newest film is Things to Come, but its French title is L’Avenir, which translates more literally as “the future.” (Miranda July already made a movie with that title.) It’s a film about a woman who enters — or, more accurately, is thrust — into the future she always knew was coming but wasn’t quite ready to encounter.
But it’s also about a woman coming to terms with that future and discovering there’s life on the other side of crisis. What’s to come, then, is sadness — but also hope. Things to Come is a limpid, often surprising meditation on what it is to be a woman casting an eye both toward the future and onto the past.
Things to Come is about looking at life both backward and forward
That woman is Nathalie Chazeaux (played by the inimitable Isabelle Huppert), mother of grown children, wife of 25 years to Heinz (André Marcon), and an esteemed Parisian philosophy professor with a lifetime of reflection presumably under her belt. Her busy, comfortable life is hit with a double sucker punch: Her elderly mother (Édith Scob) dies, and Heinz announces he’s fallen in love with a younger woman and is leaving Nathalie.
In the meantime, Nathalie has reconnected with her favorite former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who has become the kind of anarchist she was when she was younger. Their (strictly platonic) relationship — buoyed when she visits Fabien and his friends at a sort of commune in the countryside — serves as a glimpse backward for Nathalie, a reminder that she didn’t sacrifice her youthful ideals so much as age out of them.
The film is full of Nathalie’s encounters with youthful revolutionary ideals rooted in philosophy, which is, after all, the study of existence and being. Early in the film, students outside her school building are protesting for workers’ rights, but Nathalie impatiently brushes past them, not dismissing their protests so much as having done that before. Nathalie’s children are full of their own ideals; she loves them for it, and Fabien for his, but she isn’t tempted to go back to those days. Youth, it seems, have their own ideas about life that can only be tempered by the actual act of living.
Isabelle Huppert is the soul of Things to Come
Things to Come follows Nathalie through this transition period with grace and humor, all underpinned by Huppert’s beautiful, reflective performance. She doesn’t merely play her characters but also seems to direct them. That makes for a work of self-reflexivity that sounds like it would be awful but actually mimics the kind of double consciousness most women feel: living our lives while also watching ourselves live them, judging and adjusting along the way. Huppert played two notably different characters onscreen this year — along with Things to Come, she also stars in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle as a woman who is brutally raped but refuses to play the role of victim — and this self-conscious quality makes her stand out in bold relief.
As Nathalie, Huppert is a marvelous, unpredictable spectrum of a woman, with her griefs and longings mixed in with a sometimes grim, sometimes open-hearted sense of humor. Riding the bus home from her mother’s funeral, she spots Heinz and his girlfriend on the street as the bus passes them and laughs aloud, in a moment that feels absolutely true: Life is the ridiculous and the sublime, mixed together, and all you can do is hang on.
Writing about the film since its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival last winter, critics have made the apt comparison between Things to Come and the 2008 film Summer Hours, directed by Hansen-Løve’s mentor (and now husband) Olivier Assayas. The parallel is apt: Both are set at the kind of major life inflection point that causes people to look to the past for clues about the future, and vice versa.
But Things to Come put me in mind of a different film: Three Colors: Blue, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1993 drama staring Juliette Binoche as a woman who is suddenly, and against her will, freed of the constraints that she’d been comfortable living within: her marriage, her child, her entire way of being.
The conclusion of Three Colors: Blue is that a life free from constraints is an empty one. In Things to Come, Nathalie muses aloud about this freedom, and whether one might want it — just as you’d expect from a philosophy professor, a person who has dedicated her life to the examination of life. (It’s worth noting that not only is she a deeply French sort of protagonist, but she’s also likely a familiar one for Hansen-Løve, whose parents are both philosophers.)
But where Blue is melancholy, Things to Come takes a more settled, even lighter perspective. Nathalie reenergizes her life not by refilling it — she even gets rid of her cat — but by coming to understand her new circumstances as another phase in learning to live, a migration forward. For Nathalie, the lesson taught outside the classroom is that the things to come may be horrible and hurtful. But once you’re in the future, you probably wouldn’t choose to go back.
Things to Come opens in theaters on December 2.