French actress Isabelle Huppert had a great year in 2016, what with her Oscar nomination for Elle, a weird thriller in which director Paul Verhoeven for once actually gives us a break from too many gross-out details. Ms. Huppert's other notable show last year is Things to Come (L'avenir), a character study that's just as absorbing, but in a completely different way. I've heard it described as pretentious and uneventful, criticism that I think is sourced in audience expectations. These days audiences won't sit still for a movie that doesn't begin with an explosion, a bloody murder or a psychic cataclysm. The old 'why am I watching this?' reaction sets in, as if we bit into an ice cream cone and didn't get a rush of vanilla. Viewers today have better things to do than watch movies that a) aren't culturally required hits of the week, b) don't pander to their short attention spans. Director Paul Schrader lately lamented that the audience isn't changing, it's evaporating: millennials no longer believe that films are important. If you're waiting for racecars to drop out of airplanes, Things to Come isn't the movie for you.
Sure, the picture has serious aims, the title tells us that much. Director Mia Hansen-Løve slipped into the cinema world sideways, by virtue of a relationship, but she does quite well behind the camera. There are a million injustices in Naked Hollywood, as to who gets to direct and who doesn't. The proof is what's on the screen.
We're told that the writer-director based her screenplay on aspects of her own parents. Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged philosophy professor * in Paris. She is professional accomplished and is the author of a long-running textbook; she has grown children, one of whom is married, and her husband Heinz (André Marcon) is a distinguished philosophy teacher as well. They have a comfortable apartment and a weekend bungalow in Brittany. Nathalie dotes on a former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka) who has published, and who re-contacts her to say that he's relocating to a shared house in the mountains. At the outset, the one uncomfortable factor in Nathalie's life is her mother Yvette Lavastre (Édith Scob), who has frequent bouts of depression and is prone to calling the paramedics without good reason. One brilliant distillation of modern absurdity has Nathalie stumbling through the mud at the seashore, looking for a place where her cell phone can get a signal . . . so she can be told life-changing news from back in the city.
Nathalie's life advances through some dramatic changes. We see her reacting harshly to a student strike, and the newly negative attitude of her publisher's editors tells her that her 'old' textbook is on the way out. Yvette becomes so unreasonable that Nathalie must put her in an assisted living home, where the old woman retreats further into isolation. Nathalie has no choice but to take in Yvette's cat, Pandora, even though she's allergic to cats. Then the real bombshell hits. Forced by his daughter to come clean, Heinz admits to Nathalie that he's been seeing another woman, and is moving out to live with her. Nathalie is too resilient and self-aware to fall apart or fly into emotional fits. But the adjustments she must make are daunting. What shall she do with herself? She has students that respect her, but she doesn't relate to their strikes 'for the workers.' She worked through her own radical politics at an earlier age. She's attracted to Fabien but there's a barrier of years between them as well. Their association is mildly impaired by his commitment to anarchistic notions for which she no longer has any use -- been there, done that. Nathalie is strong enough to weather the pains small and large that come her way. She doesn't want to be alone, and even hugs the cat that makes her sneeze. She does find comfort that she's intellectually fulfilled. Is it enough?
Things to Come has a scene in which Nathalie tells herself out loud, 'Well maybe I'm alone but I at least find comfort in intellectual fulfillment." (para) If that sounds false, this movie is not for you.
Is Things to Come part of some new feminist, anti-melodramatic realism? It's hilarious to read viewers that say 'nothing happens' in it, when everything happens. The title might be telling younger people, 'this will happen to you, too, in one form or another.' Mid-life crisis movies for women have been a staple since the days of Lois Weber. Douglas Sirk's glossy magazine-supplement escapism (All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession) caters to romantic fantasies so unlikely as to be perverse. A woman is divorced or widowed is assumed to be asexual, even though she's barely out of her 'thirties. Without so much as a fairy godmother, a fantasy suitor who looks like Rock Hudson comes into her life. Cruel social, professional and family situations cause the woman to despair, rebel, or turn to faith. It doesn't matter which as long as there are plenty of opportunities for juicy dramatics.
Things to Come breaks every soap law on the books. The show tries something else in that everyone we see is a reasonably sympathetic rational adult. No schemers, serial killers or outright psychos are in evidence. Nathalie doesn't scream or throw fits or do anything self-destructive. Nobody needs to intervene on anybody else's behalf, except in the case of mother Yvette. All Heinz gets for his betrayal are some sharp words and a cold shoulder. Nathalie never doubts her self-identity. Her most alarmed reaction comes when she finds that Heinz has raided their shared library of philosophy texts. She doesn't see herself as a victim, doesn't try to close herself off from life, and doesn't become a neurotic in search of approval or acceptance (except from the cat). She faces her trials with poise and self-restraint. When cruelly ironic things seem to happen she can see the absurdity of it all. While riding a bus she accidentally sees her ex with his new lady, and both laughs and cries a bit. A masher follows her from a movie theater, and she doesn't panic.
Nathalie is a real heroine, with no need to be aggressively assertive. She puts up with her mother's petty mind-games, without protest. When her daughter cries and won't say why, she's accepting instead of inquisitive. Heinz shows up uninvited at Christmas and hangs around the kitchen, hoping to be included in Nathalie's family dinner. She shows him the door firmly, yet with kindness and restraint, underscoring that he must accept that nothing can be as it was before. Life has consequences. I like this woman.
We don't get too many movies about real women capable of handling their problems without emotional help, or the assist of a convenient man. Last year brought the barely-okay Hello, My Name Is Doris, a well-intentioned but somewhat dumbed- down movie about a widow finding her way into 'the later years.' Some scenes that were cut out actually veered more toward 'anti-melodramatic feminist realism:' Doris must take care of her Mother stricken by Alzheimer's. But the filmmakers opted for traditional comic fantasy. Doris must be lovably kooky, and a hunky younger guy has to become interested in her.
Ms. Mia Hansen-Løve's film also considers this issue of a potential romantic 'solution' for its lonely woman. All the elements are there. Just as in All That Heaven Allows, Nathalie has her own 'go back to nature' experiences, hanging around an idyllic mountain farm, where serious (perhaps too serious) philosophers are living the good life and writing. We note that women are doing the cooking and dishwashing. Nathalie is impressed by the housecat Pandora, who takes instinctually to life in the wild. But Nathalie has little sympathy for the younger academics' interest in anarchism. She asks why they're reading radical texts, but they aren't interested in her input, not even as something to rebel against. The unspoken message is that they consider her an irrelevant bourgeois. ** Nathalie isn't perturbed by this either -- she knows that it takes teachers like herself to create inquisitive, ambitious hotshots like her present company. She already knows her place, while they only pretend to have found theirs. Like the cat, her instinct might be to simply throw herself at Fabien. He'd surely accept her, if she came with no strings attached. Nathalie has too much dignity for that. What a wonderful woman.
I can see critics thumping Mia Hansen-Løve's movie as pretentious for daring to quote philosophy here and there, and to make the quotes at tangentially relevant to Nathalie's state of mind. Okay, so you don't like philosophy. The young academic-anarchists up in the French hills might also irk some viewers just because the word anarchist is used -- maybe viewers are disappointed that Fabien isn't unmasked as a terrorist? It's now a proven alternative fact that any and all higher education is a ticket to godless radicalism.
Yes, Things to Come is a bit of a letdown at the finish, but not really. In the 1970s there might have been a hostile reaction to a 'liberated woman' being shown embracing a traditional role. Because Nathalie enjoys her grandson doesn't mean she's turning her back on life. She's wide open to everyone. She may not think so, but there will be men wanting her company. And she'll have a choice in the matter.
They say that the movies we like are the ones that present us with fantasies that flatter our own personal prejudices. Yes, I've had contact with some of Nathalie's trials and I identify with some of the situations in the movie. But I was moved and intrigued by the entire story. I don't worry if Isabelle Huppert is the best actress working in the world today, but it certainly is a privilege to enjoy her pictures.
* Nathalie teaches at a Lycée, which seems to be our equivalent of a high school. Nathalie's students look to be of college age, and they behave more like serious graduate students. It makes one despair about the state of education in our own country.
** Frankly, the romantic match in the old All That Heaven Allows is so absurd, I like to imagine Sam Peckinpah taking over from Douglas Sirk for at least one scene: Rock Hudson would so lose patience over Jane Wyman's ridiculous self-pity that he slaps her around and tells her to grow a backbone. Then Wyman could go back to the inspiring revelation that EGBOK, with Bambi winking in approval. She isn't in nature, but she has a picture window on it!
MPI Media Group's Blu-ray of Things to Come is a stunning encoding of Mia Hansen-Løve's intriguing drama of life changes for a self-possessed Parisian academic. It was shot on film, which gives it a nice organic feel. The camera makes pre-dawn exteriors, the inside of the mountain lodge, and Nathalie's airy class discussions on a grassy hill overlooking a river attractive but not postcard-pretty. I didn't remember the film having a music score, and sure enough, no composer is listed -- we hear some of Heinz's classical music, which Nathalie realizes is all she's been listening to for 25 years. Donovan is heard on the radio at one point. When a non-diegetic cue slips onto the soundtrack, The Fleetwoods' rendition of "Unchained Melody", we feel disappointment, because we know the movie is going to end.
The show comes with a trailer that tries to sell Things to Come as a post-divorce self-realization drama, like the (great for its year) An Unmarried Woman. It's a lot more than that. Isabelle Huppert may have been nominated for the wrong movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Things to Come (2016) Blu-ray
Text (C) Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson