Towards the end of French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film, Things to Come, there is a scene that seems to aptly summarize the impulse behind its central narrative, and the woman who propels it. Nathalie Chazeaux, played by the ever-magnificent Isabelle Huppert, is a high-school philosophy teacher whose life has begun to steadily unravel. Her husband has revealed that he is having an affair and is leaving her for another woman (don’t worry, he leaves her some pretty flowers as a parting gift), her high-strung and mentally unstable mother is dying, and her book contract has just gone up in flames. Choosing to throw her cares to the wind for a weekend, she accepts the invitation of a former student to visit him at his communal home in the countryside outside of Paris. Nathalie is alone: no husband, no mother, no children. Her closest companion is Pandora, the black cat that she has inherited—rather unwillingly—from her mother.
As soon as they unpack, Pandora, previously housebound, is out of her wicker carrier and happily trotting out the door and down the hill into the tall meadow grasses. Nathalie runs after her, admonishing the bad kitty for her wildness, and, now that the feline has grown on her she worries that Pandora will not return. Fabien, her student, laughs and tells her: Don’t worry, the survival instinct will kick in. And sure enough, after a night spent calling Pandora by name in the fields to no avail, the cat returns casually to the foot of Nathalie’s bed in the morning—carrying a large rodent in her mouth.
The metaphor is perhaps a little too clear in the context of Hansen-Løve’s otherwise impeccably restrained and intelligent film, but it is a potent one nonetheless. Isabelle Huppert has built her career playing complex, indomitable women, and Nathalie is no exception. At the beginning of the film we meet a smart, confident intellectual who seems happy and settled both in her personal and professional life; she is close with her adult children, happily bickers with her husband over philosophy, and finds great pleasure in teaching her students to think critically. While she may have abandoned her more radical political leanings, she maintains an appreciation for youthful ideals, as evidenced by her relationship with Fabien, a radical anarchist organizer and her former chouchou de la classe.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s previous films, including 2014’s Eden, which chronicled the rise and fall of a young DJ in the heady world of the early 2000s Paris dance music scene, have all centred on a protagonist confronting a period of transition. While her body of work has thus far revolved primarily around stories of youth, and the accompanying themes of idealism and nostalgia, Things to Come seems to herald a new period of maturation for the director, and a graceful foray into the middle period of a life. And in Isabelle Huppert, Hansen-Løve has found her perfect vehicle.
Nathalie’s life is a life of the mind, and a carefully structured one at that. The walls of her artfully decorated home are lined with shelf upon shelf of books, and before she is axed from the drawing table by her publisher’s kitschy design-happy team, she is set to edit a collection of contemporary philosophy essays. She is also a woman who is comfortable with her place in the world—assertive, pragmatic, no-bullshit. It is perhaps these qualities that make observing the dissolution of her ordered universe so poignant. Nathalie is not a woman to be unmade by fate, but she is also decidedly human, just like the rest of us, and therefore not immune to the quiet devastation that loss and grief engender.
Watching Huppert move through a tightly bound and cuttingly perceptive script with her signature cool and subtlety is a cinematic gift of the rarest order. Each moment is so perfectly calibrated to that emotional register that we are all familiar with—that which feels true. When Nathalie’s husband declares that he is leaving her, she sits down on their ivory couch and stares at him for a moment, then at the table, and says, as if to herself: “And I thought you would love me forever”. And, only a moment later, snapping out of it (“What an idiot I am!”), before storming out of the room. Later, when she is on her way back from her mother’s funeral, crying softly to herself on the bus (who among us hasn’t been there before?), she sees her husband on the street, walking arm in arm with his new partner, and her tears turn to sputtering laugher in disbelief at the cruel humour of the universe.
Things To Come is a film about so many things: how we survive the inevitable disappointments and catastrophes of a life; how we navigate the changing seasons of youth, middle age, old age; how we learn to sit with our loneliness; how art and ideas can propel us through it all. But it is, perhaps above all, an impeccable dialogue between two exceptional women—one, a young director distinctly claiming her place as one of the truly great filmmakers of our time, and the other, an actor delivering one of the best performances of an already impressive career. The melancholic note of the film’s final frames—set to the most eloquent song imaginable—is an ending so disarmingly lovely that I found myself in tears. It is tender and sad and beautiful and perfect, kind of like life itself.
Things to Come will be screening at Vancity Theatre on Friday, December 9 and Saturday, December 10. Look for tickets here.