Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: "Things to Come"

Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Runtime: 101 minutes

A deceptive mundanity permeates Things to Come, the latest feature from France's Mia Hansen-Love. The central character, philosophy teacher Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), undergoes a series of disruptions to her everyday life, yet Hansen-Love refuses to portray any of them as end-of-world scenarios. Though it takes place over considerably less time, Things to Come in some ways recalls Boyhood. It's not entirely a shock; like Richard Linklater, Hansen-Love is fixated on people's various relationships with time, ranging from major life events to the connective tissue that fills up everything else. Yet from the mundanity of Things to Come emerges a whisper of transcendence. The ordinary is not inflated to become something greater than it is. Instead, it's handled with a mix of sensitivity and level-headedness that leads to something warm and wise.

Like Elle, another striking vehicle for Huppert (an actress continually finding new ways to be excellent), Things to Come technically hinges on a life-altering incident. But then it pulls back and forces its protagonist to cope not by putting all of their energy towards it, but by tending to it while still moving along with all else that adult life entails. Elle, with its violent rape and hints of sadomasochism, takes the darker, naughtier route. Things to Come, meanwhile, moves gently, thought not without purpose. Nathalie's life, turned upside down by her husband's affair, proceeds without too many major detours. She still has lunch with her kids, teaches class, counsels former protege Fabien (Roman Kolinka), and deals with her increasingly senile mother (Edith Scob).

Plenty of films have been made involving middle-aged men and women reinventing themselves, but few do so with the wisdom and lack of sentimentality on display here. Following the sprawling dance music saga Eden, Hansen-Love has scaled back her narrative ambitions, and emerged as a more precise storyteller. For a film composed of scene after scene of what amounts to daily life (with a few diversions), it moves with remarkable assurance and focus. It's not exactly hypnotic, but it's gently compelling in its honesty in a way that makes you want to get lost in it all. You may not share Nathalie's age, socio-economic status, or family set up, but her experiences touch on the universal without coming across as a series of bland boxes to be ticked off.

Then again, it's hard to be too bland when you've centered your movie on Isabelle Huppert. The actress is at her softest and gentlest here (compared with her ice-queen work in films like Elle, The Piano Teacher, White Material, La Ceremonie, etc etc), but she remains as galvanizing a screen presence as ever. The ups and downs of Nathalie's life are charted with the precision of an X-Acto knife, yet there's never a moment of the performance that comes off as overly calculated. Huppert has made a career out of playing characters with whom one can empathize, but not always sympathize. In the case of Nathalie, she has both, and the scenes in which her face, a mask of severity and poise, cracks, are breathtakingly moving.

So, as Nathalie moves from one moment to the next, Hansen-Love (who also wrote the beautiful script) follows her with an easy-going refinement that's all too rare in slice-of-life dramas. Even in the film's darkest moments, Hansen-Love keeps it all thrillingly alive. People bicker, people chat, people discuss philosophy, take care of their ailing parents, and sometimes they chase after their obese house cats...such is life (incidentally, between this and Elle, 2016 has been a fantastic year for those who enjoy Isabelle Huppert sharing the screen with felines). Things to Come manages to have it both ways: it celebrates the chance for reinvention, while still placing it in the context of the vast ocean of experiences and routines that define our every day existence. You don't need to be a philosophy expert to find something worth cherishing.

Grade: A-

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