Things to Come: We’ll All Have to Live There, by Scott Nye
As everybody knows, we are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. That interest can quickly turn into anxiety, over relationships and mortality and political movements and finances. By its title alone, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come places emphasis on this uncertainty, underlined when it opens on a student protest over a pending resolution that would put off retirement age for French workers and make it harder for young people to find a place in an already-unstable economy. That protest is directly preventing Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) from getting to work as a high school philosophy teacher (oh, the French), where the students are more keen to find real-world applications for the theories she discusses than to develop them on their own.
Nathalie is also contending with an unstable mother (Édith Scob), a publishing house increasingly pressuring rebranding methods for its academic books, and, soon, an unfaithful husband. As in Elle, Huppert excels with characters trying to downplay trauma by seeking out distraction. She deflects better than just about anyone. Nathalie has the advantage, she claims, of having a healthy working life in a career she adores. Later we find out her mother pushed her into it. She speaks of how these sudden departures have left her liberated for the first time in her life, but all she can do is fill the hours with family obligations, work, and former students.
Hansen-Løve’s last two films – Goodbye First Love and Eden – were intimate epics that traced young people over decades, struggling to become themselves. Things to Come utilizes a somewhat more compact time frame (though Hansen-Løve isn’t too shy to use a “several years later” and “one year later” jump as bookends), and centrally contends with how tenuous that definition of oneself is. How much of Nathalie is left once her roles as mother, daughter, wife, or author are diminished or erased? She checks all the boxes of “strong, independent woman”, but everyone becomes shaped by the people with whom they share their lives. Perhaps her most interesting, defining trait is her insistence that nothing – not her mother, not her husband, not her fading academic relevance – is as traumatic as it ends up being. That is not a solid foundation to build upon. But Nathalie’s mother overindulges, calling her with every minor ache and doubt, forcing her to cancel classes and miss out on sleep and even contend with the fire department. No wonder, with such an influence, Nathalie is less inclined to call upon others for support.
Her husband seems free of such attachments, naively believing his affair need not change much about her life. He inserts himself into family gatherings, then scuttles away when he has places he’d rather be. He claims the bulk of Nathalie’s books for himself, but insists she should feel free to use the family beach house when he’s not there. He’s able and eager to move on with his life; she has little interest in starting over with a man of any age.
Hansen-Løve’s interest in naturalism can suggest a dearth of investment in dramatic structure. Her characters rarely speak in plot or establishing context, but while exposition is sometimes a little clumsy, she very naturally builds conflict without drawing attention to it. This is in part because, as in life, it’s difficult to identify which conflicts will stick. The student protest, so urgent at the start, slowly fades. Nathalie’s son remarks that her former student is the son she wishes she had, and then that’s the end of that. Conversely, there’s much ado about Nathalie’s mother’s cat, which she can’t take to her new retirement home, leaving Nathalie – who hates it and is allergic to it – to care for it. The cat stays. It acts as a vessel for all of Nathalie’s frustrations in her new life.
This seemingly-slight unifying force is perfect for Hansen-Løve, whose characters struggle and break down but ultimately endure. They contain their sadness and anger to lessen their inconvenience to others. They burst out in tears, then try to clean up before being found out. This relies on a certain charisma from her actors, which Huppert has in abundance; if anything, one senses Hansen-Løve finding ways to reign in Huppert’s flights of fancy, which creates an interesting onscreen tension that further underscores how Nathalie has to repress herself in various environments. Get her alone in her apartment and she’ll mock books and flowers. Put her in a business meeting and she’ll try to be out of there before it starts. Put her around a dinner table and she’s stuck making excuses for careless remarks. There’s no way to resolve her dimensions, and Hansen-Løve doesn’t suggest there might be. Living honestly is extraordinarily difficult, especially when you’re trying to live empathetically.