** ½ (out of 4)
Along with the American drama Manchester by the Sea, Things to Come, a French movie starring Elle’s Isabelle Huppert, is one of two 2016 movies to tackle the subject of aimless grief. Huppert plays a philosophy teacher named Nathalie Chazeaux who finds herself in a state of “total freedom” – a problem that sounds benign until you realize that she’s referring to the outright collapse of her life. Her husband of 25 years (André Marcon) has left her for another woman, her drama-queen mother (Edith Scob) has passed away, her two young-adult children hold her in contempt, and the publishing company she’s worked with for years has decided to shelve a new edition of her textbook. You quickly realize that Nathalie’s “freedom” is not so much a liberty from some great evil as it is a Sartrean, existential freedom: a condemnation to define her life without the guidance or support of others, and right before her retirement, too.
In parts, this story about trying to find one’s own path bears fruit. Grief doesn’t follow any neat patterns, and director Mia Hansen-Løve steers clear of easy resolutions in her depiction of how Nathalie wanders between work and vacation and more work without any real idea of where she’s going. This sense of being lost gets its most beautiful expression when the movie takes to the mountains midway through: you watch Nathalie recline on a grassy plateau in the Alps, vast expanses of plain lying beneath her, and the questions silently raging through her mind are almost palpable. What am I doing with myself? What should I be doing? Throughout it all, Huppert shines like always, while Hansen-Løve on several occasions shows her remarkable ability to bring out the awkward tensions between what we say and what we really feel.
Yet for all the good it does, this movie eventually leaves you wanting. It’s above all a study in subtleties, but whereas a film like Manchester could engage in subtleties without leaving its audience behind, Hansen-Løve becomes so immersed in them that we occasionally lose sight of what they’re aiming at. For all the scenes that are in the mountains or that show Nathalie having an abrupt emotional breakdown, there are even more in which you’re only left to deal with Nathalie’s cool, impassive outer façade – and wonder in vain about what’s going on inside her head. In Elle, the opaqueness of Huppert’s character tied in well with the thriller and mystery aspects of the plot. This time around, such ambiguity blunts the impact of a story predicated on the emotional power of its characters’ struggles.
What’s most irritating, however, is that Hansen-Løve seems to be aware of this impenetrability – and that the method she uses to bridge the gap is a series of inside jokes about mythology and philosophy. Nathalie isn’t a philosophy teacher by coincidence; the film uses her job as an excuse to stage numerous readings of quotations from Rousseau and Pascal, all of which conveniently work out in the moment as pretty-sounding descriptions of Nathalie’s emotional predicament. In other places, the story also flaunts its numerous references to Pandora (the character in Greek mythology) and Schopenhauer, both of whom are conveniently associated with ideas or stories in keeping with Nathalie’s overall state of misery. (With Pandora, the name of Nathalie’s cat, there’s a particularly heavy-handed scene in which she’s released from her carrier and promptly runs into the woods. Hmm…) It’s this film’s sad irony that we’re eventually forced to resort to these cheap allusions to understand what we couldn’t glean from its esoteric nuances. A story that brims with potential turns into a frustrating conundrum defined by a line of pretentious references. And in the end, you’re only left to wonder what could have possibly driven Hansen-Løve to stunt all the good she had going.
Things to Come (L’avenir)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Edith Scob, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka
Running Time: 102 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for brief language and drug use.”
Produced by: Charles Gillibert
Written & Directed by: Mia Hansen-Løve