By Richard von Busack
Isabelle Huppert’s acute portrait of a woman of a certain age in Things To Come towers over her 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 Les Yeux Sans Visage) is prone to suicide threats and anxiety attacks. Nathalie’s husband Heinz (André 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 eye-catching abstract colorful patterns, as if a quart of rainbow sherbet melted all over them.
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.
Huppert’s flexibility is a marvel. She sets the pace of this movie as few actresses could. Director Mia Hansen-Love’s study is the opposite of a woman-getting-her-groove-back drama. And there’s an air of nostalgia in the soft Kodachromish colors Denis Lenoir (Still Alice) brings to bear.
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 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.