Although it shares an English-language title with a landmark science-fiction movie, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (whose original French title literally translates as “the future”) is mainly about living in the present, and the difficulty of processing each moment as it comes. Philosophy professor Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) has her entire life upended over the course of the movie, but she takes it all in stride, and writer-director Hansen-Løve underplays the drama so consistently that it sometimes comes across as insubstantial. Huppert is currently getting much more attention for her provocative role in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, but in a way the part of Nathalie is just as challenging, and she manages to make Hansen-Løve’s sometimes flat writing come alive at the right moments.
As the movie opens, Nathalie is a veteran professor with a stable, long-term marriage, two grown children and a thriving career, and the biggest nuisance in her life is dealing with her needy, mentally unstable mother (Edith Scob). But the cracks appear slowly, as first Nathalie’s husband of 25 years declares that he’s leaving her for another woman, then she’s forced to place her mother in a nursing home, and soon the dominoes are falling faster. Along the way there are some happier moments as well, and even as Nathalie is weathering more and more bad news, she finds wells of inner strength and even optimism, which Huppert conveys with quiet dignity.
Sometimes that dignity is so quiet that the movie feels a bit lifeless, and Hansen-Løve often hints at darker turns the story might take, only to quickly retreat from anything too heavy. Nathalie flirts mildly with her former student Fabien (Roman Kolinka), even traveling to the remote farm where he’s living commune-style with fellow radicals, but their relationship remains placid and platonic. Even their philosophical differences are respectful. One jarring scene finds Nathalie followed home from the movies (she’s seeing Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a much more probing film about the cracks in a long-term relationship) by a creepy paramour, but he backs off without resistance once she rebuffs his advances, and the incident never comes up again.
For the most part, Nathalie’s life remains orderly, even in its upheaval, and she finds power in shrugging off burdens that she never even considered to be burdensome. Late in the movie, she tells Fabien that with her husband, children and mother effectively out of her daily life, she’s freer than she’s ever been, and even if she may cry a bit when she’s alone, she’s not deluding herself when she asserts that feeling of openness and opportunity. What she’ll do with that freedom, that new life, remains an unanswered question, and the movie leisurely meanders from one place to another in no hurry to resolve it. By the end, though, it’s clear that whatever Nathalie ends up facing, she’ll be able to handle it with more grace and determination than even she might have realized she had.