Saying a lot with very little is the mark of a truly great actor: non-verbal communication, underplaying emotion, using stillness and economy of gesture efficiently, talking in whispers when a scream is expected. Able to convey crippling fragility, fear, fury and fervour in the blink of an eye, there is no questioning that Isabelle Huppert is one of contemporary cinema’s most effervescent shining lights. We have become accustomed to subtlety, naturalism, and humility of performance from the peerless French screen idol and her turn in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come is, as with all her roles, consistently mesmerising.
To say that Huppert does a lot with a little is not meant to suggest that the material at her disposal is in any way lacking, but in less assured directorial hands, and with an inferior lead, this pre, during, and post-divorce tale – not uncommon ground for melodrama – would not have been such a stirring, measured, and memorable inspection of middle age, love, and loss. Huppert plays Nathalie, a passionate philosophy teacher, dedicated wife, and mother who is rarely without one of her many books in hand. The film’s original French title, L’Avenir, meaning ‘The Future’, aligns more closely with the broader philosophical edge of a narrative that concerns itself with ideas around how major life events, changes of circumstances, and often the process of grieving alter our world view, causing us to question what things are to come and what has gone before.
Coping with these momentous occasions, taking stock, and knowing how to proceed are weighed up in prose and poetry, with various academic luminaries as close as family for Nathalie, and a vast library of works the framework for processing the plot’s traumatic course. It may sound rather trite, but verses narrated to her class, a debate on whether truth can in fact be debated, and discussions with her former student and protégé turned anarchist, Fabien (Roman Kolinka, returning to work with Hansen-Løve after 2014’s Eden), feel organic and avoid presenting these intellectuals as supercilious.
Their thoughts are always accessible and so carefully interwoven to the struggles of everyday life that one reinforces the other and is genuinely believable. Nathalie’s mother – an anxious hypochondriac in failing health – has to be hospitalised after one too many false emergency calls; her cat, Pandora, comes to stay with Nathalie even though she is allergic; her publishers decide to initially revamp and then scrap the newest edition of her book. Last but not least Nathalie’s husband, Heinz (André Marcon), announces an affair and his intention to leave her. For many, during such a chain of life-altering circumstances – where professional, personal, and familial pillars begin to crumble – the wheels would begin to fall off.
For Nathalie, however, newfound, exultant freedom – “une liberté totale” – allows her to plough her own course forward. Huppert’s outward resolution and restraint, while a sea of hurt rages beneath the surface, is symptomatic of keen choices made by the director. As such, in performance and construction, Things to Come lingers far longer in the mind. In one frame, reclining on the end of a sofa, looking into the empty space around her, Isabelle Huppert conveys volumes about loneliness and isolation. She, and with her Mia Hansen-Løve’s film, is a true marvel.
Words by Matthew Anderson