On the surface a film about a radical French philosophy teacher, whose life is slowly falling apart around her, is one of those films that you feel you should watch rather than one you really want to. It looks like one of those films that you’d struggle to drag a friend to and if you do you’d end up spending the entire film feeling guilty for making them come along. Or so you’d think! In reality Things to Come is a delight of a film to watch and if your friend refuses to come along it’s their loss and not yours.
Things to Come tells the story of Nathalie, a philosophy teacher played by the ever brilliant Isabelle Huppert, and the changes that afflict her life following a separation from her husband of 25 years. We follow her as she attempts to hold her life together despite her mother becoming increasingly ill and her philosophy textbooks, which were once a sign of her success as a teacher, going out of print. Nathalie’s teaching means a lot to her and it is clear that her work is one of the pillars holding her life together. Her one-time Marxist ideals may have dwindled over the years but she remains more than capable of putting those she teaches intellectually in place.
The fluctuations in Nathalie’s life are matched by the unrest within the city around her. The student barricades which restrict access to the school where Nathalie teaches remind us of the political and social tensions of Paris that surround the film. News footage of Nicolas Sarkozy as French President show that the film is set a few years in the past and give it a slight period setting. A lot has been made of Isabellle Huppert’s central performance and it is always a pleasure to see an actor of her quality given a role of such depth and intrigue. Perhaps the best aspect of her portrayal is that she does not dominate the screen and is able to keep our constant attention while also giving the characters around her space to develop. It is a joy to see this approach taken, as it aptly reflects the newfound passivity that Nathalie’s life changes have placed upon her.
Meanwhile, the cinematography of the film is perfectly balanced, as it manages to be both stripped back and realistic and highlight the allure of its surroundings. Set in some of the most picturesque districts of Paris that could easily find their way into a Woody Allen film with some added set design and high contrast lighting, Things to Come matches beauty with pain in the way that makes it in-keeping with the artistic traditions of the city. Behind large gloss painted doors lye characters who have been ground down by life’s experiences and from it have learnt how to deal with the challenges that will inevitably come ahead. There is, however, no overriding air of sadness to the film but instead the world that director Mia Hansen-Love depicts is one where life’s hardships are accepted.
In a recent interview Hansen-Love stated: “What I learned from life is that you can’t get rid of melancholy or of pain. It’s not even worth trying, but you can do something with it.” This sense of therapy is evident in Things to Come and leads to a viewing experience that is rewarding rather than being dour or depressing. Hansen-Love’s films are no strangers to personal upheaval and disaster, be it the suicidal and heartbroken lead of Goodbye First Love or the family tragedy at the heart of Father of My Children, and this feeling of rehabilitation has come to characterise her work.
Things to Come may not be cinematically initiative or bold, but is full of a kind of emotion and intelligence this is far too often overlooked, both in film and in real life. Hansen-Love embraces interior spaces and without fear is able to present a world that feels familiar, as if the events on screen have happened before and could all too easily inflict any of us in the future.
Things to Come premiered in the UK on 2nd September 2016.