In French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, nothing lasts. Life’s irritating fleetingness dominates the proceedings: A husband dies, a burgeoning music career flames out, a passionate love affair fades. Her latest, Things to Come, takes this theme to its logical conclusion, looking at the travails of an older woman who watches one element of her life after another get stripped away. The film’s power is its recognition that, no matter how hard life gets, though, it just keeps going. In fact, that’s what makes existence oddly beautiful.
The film stars Isabelle Huppert as Nathalie, a wife, mother and philosophy teacher in her 60s. Nothing catastrophic happens to Nathalie in Things to Come, an outcome that’s entirely familiar to anyone who’s weathered a rough patch. It’s never a single incident—it’s the small, seemingly endless accumulation of annoyances that beats us down.
First, she learns that her revered philosophy textbook is going to get bastardized for its new edition, the publisher wanting to boost sales by giving it a flashier, dumbed-down design. Then, her aged mother (Edith Scob) starts showing signs that she needs to be moved to a nursing home. Also, her husband (André Marcon) has fallen in love with someone else, which prompts her to get out of the marriage.
In a conventional Hollywood film, this litany of occurrences would be presented in a wacky just-hang-in-there tone. Hansen-Løve (Eden, Goodbye First Love) feels the full weight of these dilemmas for their cumulative impact, which Nathalie herself slowly begins to recognize, too. At an age when shedding a skin is no easy process—there’s too many years built up of routine and familiarity—Nathalie has no guarantee that she’s not simply stepping off into an abyss. Things to Come, in other words, is about the pain of letting go while holding onto a hope that there’s something waiting on the other side.
That not-knowing is where Hansen-Løve’s movies normally reside, and she once again finds oceans of feeling in that anxiety. Although Nathalie is reunited with a former student, the handsome, sensitive young Fabien (Roman Kolinka), Things to Come never makes it clear if their rapport is merely platonic or if there could be something deeper between them. It’s in keeping with a film that’s wise enough to understand there are no easy solutions for the troubles facing Nathalie—she just has to keep slogging through each new day until something, slowly, starts to change within her.
Hansen-Løve’s films often use the passage of time as a device, showing how it can weigh down her characters or give them an opportunity to transform. In Things to Come, she continues to marvel at our ability to change from era to era. The film’s opening interlude, involving Nathalie and her seemingly happy family on a trip, feels inconsequential in the moment, but its passing observations about death and the value of what we leave behind become incredibly important once the film flash-forwards years later to the present—and then jumps to a year later for a quick but potent final chapter.
Throughout, we watch as Nathalie comes to grips with how ephemeral so many things are. She isn’t just getting divorced—she’s losing a family home she’s long loved. She’s not just wrestling with what to do about her mom—she’s realizing that her connection to her only living parent will soon be severed, their only lasting bond being a cat Nathalie has never much liked. Even at school, student protestors are trying to evoke the spirit of France’s 1968 civil unrest, as if a new generation wants to take away the history of an older one. Things to Come’s sense of mortality and temporariness even occurs by accident: When Nathalie goes to a movie theater, which provokes a bizarre encounter, she’s watching Certified Copy, the lovely 2010 film from writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, who died in July.
Between this film and Paul Verhoeven’s fantastic Elle (which is set for theaters this November), Huppert is having a marvelous year in what’s been a sterling career. Effortlessly sophisticated and sexy while suggesting a great deal of vulnerability and sorrow, Nathalie mostly copes by moving forward, rarely succumbing to great emotional outbursts but, instead, relying on the cool philosophical temperament that’s guided her life’s work. Plenty of bad movies introduce us to characters who are teachers—letting that person’s emphasis of study be a lame “insight” into her personality—but Things to Come plays differently, arguing that, in our darkest times, even our personal philosophies can’t save us.
If Hansen-Løve doesn’t offer Nathalie any simple remedy, at least she’s incredibly compassionate, albeit without harboring any illusions about what a traumatic period this is for the woman. That compassion and generosity extend to everyone in the film—even her ex-husband, who’s not a bad man so much as a profoundly disappointing one. As the potential love interest, Kolinka makes Fabien more complicated than what we might have guessed. He admires Nathalie, but he doesn’t worship her, their friendship evolving in unexpected ways. And Things to Come ends the only way it could—truthfully and with much left unresolved. Nathalie isn’t entirely back together, but she’s on the road to equilibrium. Ultimately, it’s the most any of us could hope for ourselves.
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Writer: Mia Hansen-Løve
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka, Edith Scob, Sarah Le Picard, Solal Forte
Release Date: Screening at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.