“Life is short,” the expression goes, but depending on where you are, the sensation can feel quite the contrary. Sometimes, life feels long, with very little hope that it will change or get better. That’s certainly how Nathalie perceives her life, as the unhappy woman at the center of Things to Come, which chronicles the slow unraveling of everything Nathalie’s known and counted on. From one perspective, Things to Come is a melancholy, slight drama, but depending on your own experience, it can also feel like the bitterest, truest of comedies.
Nathalie is played by Isabelle Huppert, a master of enigmatic elegance who’s also terrific in Elle, a dark thriller about a businesswoman attacked and raped in her home who becomes obsessed with finding the man who assaulted her. In Things to Come, she’s portraying another middle-aged woman facing a crisis, and even if this one doesn’t seem as severe, the trauma is just as profound.
A respected philosopher, teacher, and essayist, Nathalie learns that her longtime husband (André Marcon) is leaving her for another woman. In addition, her ailing mother (Édith Scob), who raised Nathalie on her own, has reached the stage in her mental deterioration that a nursing home has become inevitable. Before too long, Nathalie will have very few of the hallmarks that have distinguished her life—her home and her mother will soon be no more.
The quietly remarkable French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve brings her usual casually perceptive eye to Things to Come. In movies like The Father of My Children and Eden, the 35-year-old writer-director has shown an interest in how people make do with the bad hand life has dealt them. As with Hansen-Løve’s previous films, Nathalie is hardly destitute—financially speaking, she has a comfortable existence—but the director shows enormous sympathy to her upper-class character, showing how she’s unmoored by the realization that, in her 60s, she’s free to remake her world. Things to Come is wise about how terrifying such a realization can be.
Hansen-Løve doesn’t concern herself with plot as much as she does in populating her movies with a richly-textured world in which people come and go. Characters bounce into Natalie’s orbit and then dart away, each of them adding to the film’s overall rumination about our ability to make a stab at normalizing the surrealism of existence: Her ex-husband stops by the house to collect his belongings or discuss their two grown children; she begins to take a shine to a fawning, good-looking former student (Roman Kolinka) who invites her to visit him at a commune where he and several other young people are trying to dream up a new society. Most bizarrely, Nathalie’s visit to a movie theater is interrupted by a stalker who inadvertently taps into her growing sense of loneliness and sexual uncertainty. There’s no great revelation waiting at the end of Things to Come, and that’s what’s so sad—or comic—about the whole film. Life just keeps throwing these deeply irritating nuisances at us, whether we’re ready for them or not.
If this makes it sound like Things to Come is the foreign art-house equivalent of a Cathy comic strip, there’s blessedly nothing facile or cutesy about the film’s lament about the impermanence of everything. Huppert plays Nathalie with an unwavering calm, almost a weary resignation, but the character sees what we see: Her life is going to get smaller for a while, maybe forever, and she’s going to struggle with self-doubt for the foreseeable future. And yet, there’s something inspiring about her performance in all its just-put-one-damn-foot-in-front-of-the-other resilience. Indignities surround Nathalie—even the new, young hotshots at her publishing house want to dump her philosophy books because they’re not “sexy” enough—but she just keeps moving forward because, like the rest of us, she doesn’t really have any choice. The alternative to moving forward is too ghastly to ponder.
Hansen-Løve doesn’t kid us about Nathalie’s prospects—she’s going to have to get used to pain—but that candor is what makes Things to Come oddly stirring. The film’s title says it all with its vaguely ominous hints of trouble on the horizon. But the experience of watching Things to Come is to realize that, really, trouble is always on the horizon if that’s how you choose to look at things. The film opens with a trip to a grave and ends with a baby. Sometimes, life is short. Sometimes, it’s long. Other times, it can be both.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site