The often-fraught relationship between an individual and the passage of time is thoughtfully examined in Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film Things to Come.
The story follows Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) a philosophy teacher at a Paris high school who has built a career out of questioning some of the most profound and complex dilemmas of the human condition. Nathalie revels in the quest for knowledge, and her unique writings have become the preferred texts in classrooms throughout the country. When she’s not advising her students, Nathalie is taking care of her two children and visiting her elderly mother, a once-promising model who has now become a recluse and a hypochondriac.
For the most part everything seems to be going well for Nathalie, but unexpectedly her husband of 23 years announces he is leaving her for another woman, plunging Nathalie into a series of misfortunes that will cause her to question her long-held beliefs and the direction her life is moving in.
One of the major thematic elements that Hansen-Løve concentrates on is the gap between generations, and in particular, the difficulty for women of a certain age to escape a form of solitude, and the fear of becoming irrelevant in their societies. Nathalie ends up losing her husband, her mother and a lucrative book deal. It’s not just that pieces of her heritage and biology are being erased, but her words and ideas, the sentences and thoughts stabilizing her presence in this reality are unraveling. If one does not have others around to acknowledge one’s presence and relevance, then does the individual exist? This is the kind of question Nathalie has been dissecting her entire adult life, and in many ways, philosophy has become her survival tool, a life raft in the choppy and constantly shifting waters of the present. But now, instead of a survival tool, philosophy has morphed into a poison, threatening to consume Nathalie’s mind and heart.
Hansen-Løve’s approach in excavating the interiorities of her characters is also unique. Instead of using elaborate backstories to shed light on the psychologies of her characters, she opts instead to focus on the almost music-like rhythms of the actors’ movements and expressions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Huppert’s impressive performance, whose every dream-like gaze or angry grimace reveals the deepest and most visceral emotions human beings have to offer. In many ways, it’s a commentary on written language and its deficiencies in capturing the purest emotions people often express. Although Nathalie pours every ounce of her intellectual capabilities onto the page, not one of her elaborate sentences can scratch the surface of so-called truth the way that her tears and smiles can. In this sense, existence cannot be captured in words, but must be felt and understood through a physical presence.
Time as well is a fascination for Hansen-Løve; not only the question of its passage but its existence in general. Typically, at least in Western storytelling, an audience expects to be confronted with characters overcoming the struggles of the present and looking ahead towards a better future. But here, Hansen-Løve turns the expectation on its head, instead presenting the viewer with characters obsessed with rediscovering the present, and having little concern about the future. Nathalie remains in a sort of stasis, and despite signs suggesting she should alter her way of thinking, chooses instead to cling to the ideals and actions that have provided her a level of certainty up until this point. She embraces the notion of an all-consuming present, and rather than stripping away the shards of her old life, decides to stitch them back together, using the string of her newly-formed knowledge in the hope that this time the binding will hold.
Ultimately, with extreme precision and clarity, Hansen-Løve presents a story that makes us question our ideas of how narrative operates, and as a result, allows the rewarding thrill of the unexpected to take hold.
Things to Come is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.