One of the most beautiful and uplifting films I have seen in some time, Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come is a semi-autobiographical drama centred on Natalie Chazeaux, a philosophy professor played by Isabelle Huppert, who finds herself renegotiating middle age after a series of small crises force her to confront everything that appeared stable and static in her life. Much of the film plays out as a French academic drama, with academic discourse pervading most of the script and the narrative as a whole seeming to ponder the fate of scholar-activists as well as the possibility of political radicalism within and through academia. Unrest around educational reform makes up the backdrop of the film, while Natalie and her husband Heinz (Andre Marcon) are both veterans of the 1968 evenements, leading their students and colleagues to expect some kind of proportionately disruptive action from them in the present, especially Natalie’s protégé Fabien (Roman Kolinka). At the same time, the film takes place against broader changes in academia as well, especially the fate of academic publishing houses, as the film opens with Natalie being told that her rhapsodic academic prose style doesn’t fit with current marketing trends, and her sudden divorce from her husband forcing them to divide their academic library and face the arduous task of resourcing and repurchasing the books they end up losing, many of which have been out of print for years.
On top of that, Natalie is faced with the unenviable task of looking after her ageing mother, Yvette (Edith Scob), an ex-model who rings her daughter at all hours of the day and night with elaborate fictions, demands for attention and threats of suicide. Clearly, there are resonances here with Huppert’s role in The Piano Teacher, as there have been in so many of her other recent films, but Things to Come also dissociates Huppert from the role more thoroughly than virtually any other part she’s played in the last ten years. For all the turmoil and drama surrounding Natalie’s life – and not just her personal life, since it also emerges that her groundbreaking philosophy monograph may be going out of print for the first time in a decade – the film as a whole is suffused with a bright, pastel palette and a hazy washed-out 60s kind of feel that makes anything seem possible. Barely five minutes at a time take place indoors and even then interior spaces tend to be flooded with soft, radiant light, shot through with a sense of porosity and possibility and nearly always bedecked with a wide array of plants and botanical accoutrements.
By the same token, virtually all the exterior sequences take place in and around parks, as Hansen-Love’s quiet, lateral pans build a pastoral atmosphere that brims with a sense of regeneration, youthfulness and possibility, in a kind of revisionist counterpoint to Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air. Fertility and fecundity abounds, as Natalie continually returns to the same park over and over again throughout her daily routine, always sitting under the same tree – whether alone or with a tutorial full of students – and simply basking in the rejuvenating potential of a public sphere and public space that often feels utterly absent from recent cinematic and televisual depictions of Paris (the final episode of the third season of The Affair makes for an interesting contrast). By the end, Paris itself feels like a giant park, suffused with a breezy, cool sense of space that’s set in place by the opening prologue in which Natalie and her family visit Chateaubriand’s grave and stare out across the ocean, awed, calmed and rejuvenated by the expansiveness of the view at precisely the moment at which they confront and contemplate their own collective mortality.
That pastoral 60s vibe is only enhanced by the two main departures from Paris, although to even call them departures perhaps underestimates how beautifully they’re folded into Hansen-Love’s emergent sense of mood and atmosphere. On the one hand, there’s a sojourn to Heinz’s family house in Brittany, an incredible structure that’s nested in the back of a wooded hill but also somehow facing directly onto a massive expansive of beach as well. Every part of this house revolves around its sprawling garden, when Nathalie has tended for years as her pride and joy but is forced to give up in the divorce – the only thing she really regrets losing – as she visits it for one last time to get things in order before signing the papers. In a wonderful extended sequences, she walks further and further out into the bay during what appears to be a neap tide in order to get a phone signal, ambling barefoot across clay, sand, rocks and shells until the house feels like a distant memory, subsumed into the vast, sensuous circumambience of the bay and sky. That immersive atmosphere continues into the second exurban space, a radical anarchist commune founded by Fabien in the mountains, aimed at creating a “real countervailing power and alternate lifestyle” based around collective labour and publication. Here, as in Brittany, Nathalie is largely left to wander, moving in and out of a series of situations that conspire to remind her that she’s “too old for radicality” before she’s had really a chance to decide for herself.
And that turns out to be the pattern of the film as a whole, as Nathalie greets middle age with an intense, sensuous, sensory awareness that everyone else assumes has been satiated by having a husband, children and successful career. Although she seems to be faced with one disappointment after another, they never quite make a dent in the film’s optimistic, emergent atmosphere, nor stifle the sense of the fecundity and fertility that unfold before Nathalie almost despite herself. No doubt, most of the events of the film leave her unwanted and ill-defined in some ways, but they also open up a new and sensuous communion with the surrounding world that underpins even the most harrowing moments with a richly comic atmosphere. In one terrific scene, she leaves the funeral service for her mother and breaks down on the bus, only to see her husband with his mistress out the window and break just as quickly into laughter – and not manic laughter, or traumatic laughter, but laughter as an awareness of new possibilities and abilities arising from the slackening of all her previous demands and responsibilities. It’s a wonderful touch, then, that Nathalie’s relationship with Fabien never quite settles into a romance, and is never fully sexualised, since this is quite emphatically not a film about a middle-aged woman who needs to rediscover her lust for life through a redemptive reengagement with youth, or with student activism.
Instead, Nathalie discovers the spirit of 1968 in the experience of middle-aged womanhood itself, channelling her student self in the name of a new sense of provisional identity, but also a new sense of invisibility, both of which force her to explore and experiment with ever more open-ended ways of being around and close to other people. In the process, the mood and atmosphere of the film becomes ever more distended, until it feels as if we are inhabiting some strange zone between present and future – the future present – only for Hansen-Love to end with a wonderfully abrupt and elliptical ending in which Natalie manages to both cradle her grand-daughter in her arms and brush away all the expectations of middle-aged femininity standing between them at the same time. So open, unwritten and unresolved is this ending – and so thoroughly and beautifully does it restore Nathalie with a sense of genuinely open-ended futurity – that it is really more like a beginning than an ending, as if all the officially sanctioned significances of her life had really been a mere prologue for all the things to come.
It’s not hard, then, to see a parallel with Hansen-Love’s career, which – for all its incredible beauty so far – suddenly seems to revise and renew itself in this final scene, as all the possibilities raised by the film, no matter how remote or improbable, feel as if they might or might not eventuate, which is more than enough to restore Nathalie’s lust for life. Or, rather, to restore her desire, since desire and futurity are bound up in Things to Come in a particularly pointed and poignant way, just as the film follows Jean-Jacques Rousseau in insisting that “we enjoy less what we obtain than what we desire.” Having obtained all the trappings of middle-aged womanhood, Nathalie is given a gift few middle-aged women in cinema receive – a genuine desire and lust for the future – and the results are exquisite as they are unfamiliar and strange, in a film that plays as a sustained prologue, demanding and precluding a sequel in the same breath.