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By Richard von Busack January 6, 2017
An acute portrait of a woman of a certain age, Things To Come towers over Isabelle Huppert's much-vaunted performance in Elle. Huppert plays Nathalie, an aging philosophy teacher who needs all the consolation her discipline can provide.
Her neurotic mother (Edith Scob, of the horror classic Yeux Sans Visage) is prone to suicide threats and anxiety attacks. Nathalie's husband, Heinz (Andre Marcon), is a stout and humorless old pedant, who is secretly seeing someone on the side. And Nathalie's reputation as a scholar isn't enough to save her from the bottom-line obsessed executives at her publishing house.
Though she's renowned in her field, her textbooks aren't selling. Fellow snobs, who love the blank white covers of French paperbacks with the stark titles on them, will cringe along with Nathalie at the redesign of her books—the money-men at the publishing house want to see abstract, colorful patterns. The result looks like a quart of rainbow sherbet has been melted on the cover. The marketeers provide the film's title: "The future seems compromised ..." they worry, contemplating Nathalie's sales figures.
There are small consolations in the older woman's plight: She learns fondness for the overfed cat her mother left her to care for. It's a warmer, cattier cat than the highly symbolic feline in Elle, the one who gave the cold eye-of-god look as her owner was raped.
A particularly handsome and talented former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), helps get Nathalie out of her shell. He's involved in the political fight against the French government's cutting of benefits. Fabien has joined a commune of international students at an alpine farmhouse, where he proposes to edit a revolutionary journal.
Action is obviously not Nathalie's strong point. She'd been political once, traveling to the USSR to see the workers paradise for herself. At this stage she's nothing but a consummate teacher. When her students strike against the social welfare cuts, she keeps out of it. If the government raises the retirement age to 67, it doesn't bother her: "I love my job." Her obsession is to arm her students with self-criticism and the ability to think, to try usher them into a future she won't live to see.
Huppert's flexibility is a marvel. She sets the pace of this movie as few actresses could. "After 40, a woman is fit for the trash," she tells Fabien, talking herself out of an attraction to the young anarchist. Everything about Huppert contradicts that self-deprecation. Nathalie is neither so rigid that she can't be loved, nor so soft that anyone can leave a mark on her. Standing, listening, speaking: here is the authority, the wit that sums up the plight of the serious intellectual who has run out of ways to monetize her intelligence.
Director Mia Hansen-Love's study is the opposite of a woman-getting-her-groove-back drama. There's an air of nostalgia in the soft Kodachome-ish colors Denis Lenoir (Still Alice) brings to bear. Huppert's paisley blouses and blue jeans recall the '60s, as does the talk of the stirred-up students.
Even the most amiable divorce leaves some blood on the floor. That said, Heinz becomes an incidental character—we don't see his reasons for straying, beyond Latin male ego. The late Carrie Fisher commented that the trouble with men is that they always require a woman to agree with them, but a woman as logical as Nathalie could be a bit chilly. He remains what he seems at first: a highly educated fool.
Early on in the film, Nathalie and her family take a trip to a summer house in Brittany, not far from the seaside monument where the writer and adventurer Chateaubriand is buried. Near that grave is a plaque telling the visitor to be silent and listen to the sounds of the wind and the waves; Things to Come is a similarly quiet, with little music: some Schubert, some Woody Guthrie, and that lullaby that provided another first-rate French film with its title, "I've Loved You So Long." The movie cherishes the importance of the thinkers who puzzled out the rights of all humans to freedom and dignity. Things to Come has a philosopher's precision and a poet's sensitivity.