It seems that the more I love a film, the harder it is to describe exactly why. I think that’s because the best films reach a place that is deeper than logic and structure and the meanings we can easily make out of stories. Cinema can transfigure ordinary life through the power of its dreamlike visions.
Things to Come is the title of a new film by writer-director Mia Hansen Løve. The shorter French title, L’avenir, means “the future,” as in one’s personal future, always looming ahead yet out of reach. Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, a philosophy professor in her early 60s, intellectually sharp and confident, an esteemed published writer, sometimes a little hard on those closest to her. Things to Come presents a glimpse of a time when her life’s circumstances start to break down all at once. Her marriage is shaky, her needy mother is in poor health, and her professional life is getting strained as well.
Remarkably, none of this comes across as dramatic or contrived or aiming at conveying some kind of lesson—Hansen Løve’s steady eye and hand simply immerse you in Nathalie’s experience, in which the arbitrariness of events allows meaning to come from within the character. And the director can of course rely on her greatest asset, Isabelle Huppert, surely one of the five or six best film actresses alive, and Huppert does not disappoint. Nathalie’s engagement with philosophy does not seem superficial but integral, and that’s because Huppert’s utterly natural performance makes it so. This is a true film of the mind where thoughts are just as accessible as everyday events and emotions. It is the film’s relaxed brilliance, its seeming effortlessness in creating a reality on screen, that makes it hard to describe. A viewer who is more used to conventional dramatic methods might wonder, what really happened in this film? Is there a plot? Well no—not as one usually thinks of a plot, but things do happen. The difference is that things are presented as happening in the stream of people’s experience, rather than externally.
We live in an age when films are almost always about youth and the high energy and passion of that time of life. Hansen Løve defies that trend. Huppert’s character is in a place where desire can no longer substitute for fulfillment. She must determine what purpose her remaining life allows. In her relationships, with her husband, her two adult children, even her mother’s old cat that she reluctantly adopts, there is always a bit of wariness, a kind of looking down from the perspective of mortality. One interesting new element is her friendship with a handsome former student named Fabien, played by Roman Kolinka. There is an erotic tension here, but also an intellectual one. Fabien is now an anarchist, and his conversations with Nathalie eventually show her that she can no longer abide the absolutism, the black and white thinking, of her youth. She is not without flaws, notably her instinctive judgmentalism. But the resolution with which she moves through the pain of her life falling apart conveys more than an outright emotional breakdown ever could. There are scenes and moments in Things to Come that linger in my memory and make me feel grateful.