Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Things to Come, by Aaron Pinkston

18 Oct

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Things to Come is a pretty simple character study following a woman (Isabelle Huppert) whose life is on the verge of disarray. However, it doesn’t have the same kind of structural or formal dynamism as director Mia Hansen-Løve’s sprawling EDM epic Eden. Instead, Hansen-Løve makes a more moderate and thus more polished film—this next step doesn’t exactly raise her profile in my mind but (to use a baseball metaphor) she has fully graduated from prospect status as a “filmmaker to watch.”

Huppert stars as Nathalie Chazeaux, a high school philosophy teacher and essayist. Much of the film revolves around her different lives with her family, students, and a former student who has become an important activist and protege. Through these relationships, the film doesn’t particularly build to anything or hinge on any one event, though when major plot moments do occur, they are not earmarked as you would expect in a serious drama.

If there is any specific event that spurs the plot of the film, it occurs when Nathalie’s husband admits that he has fallen in love with another woman—though her reaction and the result isn’t the big dramatic moment you would expect. Nathalie uses this shakeup as an excuse to spend time at the philosophy commune run by Fabien (Roman Kolinka) in an idyllic mountainside setting. This brief section of the film had the most potential given my knowledge of Hansen-Løve’s work, as it sways into the world of youthful ambition that was so compelling in Eden (the spectacular views on full display don’t hurt either). Ultimately, though, it is too minor a subplot to catch lightning. Nathalie’s relationship with Fabien never really develops. The glimpses into the group’s working politics build on the film’s overall intellectualism but are few.

Nathalie’s relationship with her mother, an aging actress who suffers from debilitating panic attacks, is the film’s most interesting. Much of the credit goes to the great Edith Scob, who is always a treasure to see on screen. From the moment we meet the character, Scob brings an indelible history and style. Their contentious relationship is completely recognizable and becomes the emotional heart of the film (if there really is one, anyway). As Yvette’s condition worsens and she becomes annoyingly dependent on her daughter, Nathalie is forced to put her in a care facility. As she fades away in the narrative, Yvette’s beloved cat becomes something of her representation, a surprising interjection into the film’s third act.

In some ways, Things to Come feels like a throwback to French films of the 1960s and 1970s. It isn’t as formally inventive, but its interest in intellectual ideas and narrative pacing have a bit of Rohmer in there. This sort of film has a way of burrowing into one’s mind, and is not ideal for the festival environment in which I saw it, but my appreciation of it may evolve. Isabelle Huppert is reliably good, despite not having the big emotional moments she so routinely pulls off if more dynamic roles. Her character’s journey builds throughout the film, but in an unusual way. With the characters’ interests in philosophy, there are substantive discussions, though they live separated from the overall plot. There isn’t anything wrong with being a thoroughly solid film—except maybe when you were expecting more.

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