The morbid certainty of 'Things to Come'

Isabelle Huppert as Nathalie

Isabelle Huppert as Nathalie Photo by Ludovic Bergery, Courtesy of Sundance Selects

The original French title of Things to Come is L’Avenir, which translates to “the future.”

The title appears onscreen in Mia Hansen-Løve’s newest film accompanied by an image of a graveyard, an early sign of what awaits us both during and after the movie.

Though not all doom and gloom, much of what follows is in keeping with that foreboding omen. Isabelle Huppert stars as Nathalie, a philosophy professor in Paris with a husband about to leave their marriage and a mother soon to leave this mortal coil. She handles both developments as well as can be expected, greeting this new chapter in the latter half of her life as both a kind of liberation and a leap into the unknown. As the existentialists were quick to remind us, freedom is terrifying.

Every tossed-off remark and insistence that she’s doing okay seems both a deflection and an honest expression of how she thinks she feels. But someone as intelligent as she is knows how to bury subtext in even the most perfunctory of statements. Reading between Nathalie’s lines can be as rewarding as poring over a Kierkegaard essay.

Things to Come is one of two films led by Huppert currently in limited release, the other being Elle. Long a luminary of world cinema, the French actress is quietly making a case for herself as a singular talent, this year in particular. As Nathalie, hers is a less overt performance than the one she delivers in Paul Verhoeven’s film, which begins with the rape of Huppert’s character and turns into a kind of thriller with pitch-black comic sensibilities.

Hansen-Løve, too, is a favorite in the arthouse world, and one whose low-key approach has never quite resonated with me. By most accounts this makes me a flawed person and may well say more about my sensibilities than those of the filmmaker, who was awarded the prestigious Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

But if you, too, studied philosophy in college or simply spend a lot of time around academics prone to philosophical discussions, then perhaps you will also find characters sitting around and proclaiming their views to be the least compelling way to explore said ideas.

The film fares better when Nathalie isn’t arguing about how best to live one’s life but simply living hers. She goes to the movies (Abbas Kiarostami’s masterful Certified Copy), which leads to an unwanted advance; she has meetings about the newest edition of a textbook she’s written. Romance has failed her of late, but Nathalie’s intellectual pursuits have yet to slow down. “That’s reason enough to be happy,” she proclaims, and for a while we even believe her.

But her two children entering adulthood and leaving the family home complicates matters, as do an unwanted cat and frequent emergency phone calls from her ailing mother. There’s never a good time for any of this, of course, but Huppert is the very image of grace under fire as Nathalie juggles everything la vie throws at her. When one ball falls, though, the rest tend to follow.

Things to Come
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre