It is fair to say that Isabelle Huppert is one of the best living actresses in the world and 2016 was her year. She had not one, but two impeccable roles in critically acclaimed films. Paul Verhoeven’s Elle got her Golden Globe and Oscar nomination, but her work in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come is as good. It is a masterclass in acting. And too bad Things to Come is not a better film.
Still, most of the film critics simply loved it, praising its sense of time passing, all the right questions asked, subtlety and gentle touches, which all cemented the status of Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden) as the golden girl of new French cinema. Maybe it is just my problem with Hansen-Løve and her story-telling consisting mostly of everyday, mundane events almost without any kind of accents that would highlight the importance. Or it is just the lack of dramatic structure, except the flat storyline, that rubbed me the wrong way. And considering subtlety, can a film be too subtle for its own good?
On paper, it sounds interesting, though. Our protagonist is a middle aged philosophy teacher and textbook editor Nathalie, played by Huppert with her trademark mix of expressiveness, distance and sense of humour. And we get to see her in the year her comfortable, somewhat bourgeois life takes a turn in a series of bad luck moments. She has to deal with her demanding mother (veteran Edith Scob) almost on daily basis, first her depression and then her death. With all the changes and the imperative of simplification, her editorial work is also at stake and Nathalie is a bit of a dinosaur for not accepting to dumb down the philosophy so it could be more attractive to the masses. On top of that, her husband’s (Andre Marcon) midlife crisis results in him moving out with his new girlfriend, but on a more positive side, her favourite student Fabien (Roman Kolinka) gets back to her life.
The only good thing Hansen-Løve does is refusing to take the story in the trendy offbeat-artsy direction. The “passion” Nathalie and Fabien share is for philosophy and wisdom, their relationship is respectfull and strictly cerebral. The age difference between them is evident in their conversations about books they read, radicalism and action, and that is one of the highlights of the film.
The problem is that, on any other level, Things to Come packs absolutely no punch and that is a deliberate decision. We have a great actress playing a woman whose life comes crashing around her, but we get no sense of it. Her existence or even her lifestyle is never an issue. She feels sorry she will never come to her husband’s summer house on the seaside. She feels stuck with her mother’s cat. She suddenly got some freedom she doesn’t know what to do with, and that is all of her trouble. She is not even sure if she wants “someone” in her life. It feels like a walk in the park but we know it is not all that simple. We are waiting for something to happen, to converge to something, for things to come somewhere, but...
There are some nice touches, though. Camera-work is great, feeling fluid and drifting to nice little details. The selection of books shown or talked about is great. Name-dropping from Žižek (whom Nathalie describes as “fishy”) to Unabomber is astonishing. And Isabelle Huppert is brilliant as always, she is enjoying playing her character and we are enjoying watching her doing so. But is it enough? Things to Come pretty much comes to nothing.