In Los Angeles, sunshine is a constant, so it’s not until the weather changes, with gusts of wind or an all-too-rare rainy day, that locals even acknowledge that there’s such a thing as weather. For regular moviegoers, narrative film is its own form of sunshine; we see so many movies divided into three acts, with misdirects and misunderstandings and instigating incidents that we don’t notice the similar structure of so many of the films we watch.
And then along comes a movie like “Things to Come,” which avoids the marching orders so many other films follow as a matter of course. There are no acts here, and no villains, and very little scoring, and very few incidents as such, and yet it’s a captivating, fascinating piece of work. It mirrors what we might recognize as life as it is lived, and it’s a spellbinding experience.
For a film that is so much about one woman’s life and how it continues despite a barrage of changes and losses, it certainly helps that writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve has the collaboration of the great Isabelle Huppert, offering another hypnotic and magnetic performance; you can almost never catch her acting, which makes her work all the more powerful. (Between “Things to Come” and “Elle,” Huppert is currently doubling up on the best work by any actress this year.)
Huppert stars as Nathalie, a philosophy professor who has a comfortable life and a successful career. What happens next are hardly the travails of Job, but they are certainly the kinds of setbacks that could shatter someone’s life: Nathalie’s mother Yvette (legendary French star Edith Skob) has to be put in assisted living. Nathalie’s children grow up and leave the house. Her husband Heinz (André Marcon, “Something in the Air”) leaves her for his younger mistress. Her publishers are ditching the philosophy textbook she wrote in favor of something flashier.
With all the shake-ups in her life, Nathalie allows herself almost no self-pity. She visits the countryside, where her protégé Fabien (Roman Kolinka, “Eden”) lives in an anarchist cheese-making collective. (Did I mention this was France?) She tries to tend to her mother’s fat, housebound cat. She makes one last visit to Heinz’s family’s beach house in Brittany to collect her things. (There’s a great close-up of Huppert looking out a car window in this sequence, as we see Nathalie allowing herself a rare moment to acknowledge what’s being taken from her.) She carries on.
One imagines Nathalie rolling her eyes at “Eat, Pray, Love” or “Wild” or other Hollywood female-midlife-crisis movies where women have to go to physical and geographical extremes to get their groove back. She has her books, her work and her own mind to see her through. (She’s so devoted to her profession that she crosses a student picket line, not because she’s against their cause, but because for her, teaching is everything.)
Hansen-Løve (“Eden,” “Goodbye First Love”) isn’t out to push our buttons; while other contemporary filmmakers feel the need to underline and italicize, here’s a director who trusts audiences to pay attention, to intuit, to understand. There’s almost no score here, just a handful of judiciously chosen compositions (from Schubert, Donovan, Woody Guthrie and The Fleetwoods).
The teaching segments attest to Nathalie’s skill — even when she’s lecturing under a tree, with her students sprawled out on the grass – but we don’t get any of those “full lecture hall leaps to its feet in applause” moments, thank heavens. It’s also clear that “Things to Come” isn’t invested in our finding her likable all the time; when her younger child refers to Fabien as “the son she wished she had,” we get the impression that he’s not entirely kidding.
This is an intelligently made film about an intelligent woman, but it’s also emotionally engaging; who among us wouldn’t like to feel that we could persevere even if stripped of nearly everything that defines us? Many film critics have recently discussed the near-impossibility of watching movies lately without placing them into a post-Election Day context, but in any event, there’s always room for a smart movie about hope.