'Things to Come' ('L’Avenir'): Berlin Review

'Things to Come' film still - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
An emotionally observant character study.

‘Eden’ director Mia Hansen-Love’s latest feature stars Isabelle Huppert as a woman whose life slowly unravels.

For her fifth feature, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Love follows the quotidian travails of a 50-something philosophy teacher — played effortlessly and with plenty of verve by Isabelle Huppert — who’s dumped by her longtime husband, burdened with an increasingly senile mother and suddenly forced to face the onset of old age by herself.

If the filmmaker’s previous movies all dealt with the passage of time in one way or another, this latest effort, aptly titled The Future in French — or Things to Come in English — tackles the subject head on in a manner both deeply intellectual and compassionately playful, mixing citations by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal with witty reflections and a surprising number of cat jokes. While the film’s first half is perhaps more potent than its conclusion, this is still another impressive work by an auteur who manages to transform everyday stories into a singular vision.

Premiering in competition at the Berlinale, the Franco-German production should see extensive art house distribution thanks to Huppert’s name and Hansen-Love’s reputation as one of France’s most promising directors, especially after her DJ saga Eden was championed by certain critics in the U.S. and U.K. A French release slated for April 6 could see a decent turnout before the glut of films bound for Cannes.  

Married for 25 years and most happy when surrounded by her books and students, Nathalie (Huppert) approaches life and work with a matter-of-factness that doesn’t stop her from asking some serious questions, though perhaps not always of herself. She’s extremely good at breaking down the thoughts of Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and other major 20th century philosophers, though all the brainy treatises in the world can’t necessarily prepare one for the messiness of human existence.

This comes quickly enough when her husband and fellow philosophy teacher, Heinz (Andre Marcon), decides to leave Nathalie for another woman, moving out of their sunny Parisian apartment and taking plenty of books with him. Meanwhile, Nathalie’s aging mother, Yvette (the great Edith Scob, Holy Motors), has become incapable of living alone, harassing her daughter with calls both day and night, until the latter has no choice but to find a suitable nursing home to place her in.

While these are all transformative events for Nathalie, and not necessarily joyful ones, Hansen-Love approaches them with a directness and lightheartedness that never feels heavy-handed, even when it seems like things are desperate. In one scene, Nathalie sobs alone while riding a city bus, but suddenly bursts into laughter when she unexpectedly sees Heinz and his mistress out the window. Could it really get any worse?

The film’s shrewd sense of humor, its way of underlining the absurdity of life’s foibles, is fully carried by Huppert’s disarming performance, which never panders to easy sentiments but doesn’t shy away from showcasing raw emotion. Per the press notes, the Nathalie character was inspired by both the actress herself and, like the personas in many of Hansen-Love’s films, by the director’s own family, making for someone who feels incredibly real and a whole lot like Huppert, as if the latter weren’t acting at all.

If Nathalie’s life has clearly been upended, she manages to find some solace in the company of the handsome and considerably younger, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a brilliant former student who has given up academia to live with a group of intellectual anarchists in the countryside. As she becomes more isolated, Nathalie seems further drawn to her ex-pupil, arriving at his picturesque mountain abode with her mom’s cat Pandora in tow, resulting in several gags and a fair amount of animal close-ups. (Though not necessarily meaningless ones, Pandora being all that remains of Yvette.)

While the latter sequences reveal how time gradually helps Nathalie move on (an idea also explored in Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love), the closing reels tend to lack the narrative impact of what came beforehand, with Fabien never turning into a captivating enough character — even if Kolinka (who played the illustrator in Eden) is excellent here, especially when he sings along to the Woody Guthrie classic “My Daddy" during one particularly upbeat sequence.

But anyone hoping to find catharsis in the work of Hansen-Love should look elsewhere, and like her other films, this one is less about the drama than about what goes on before and after it — those ordinary moments when nothing happens, yet everything happens. Working again with DP Denis Lenoir, she crafts a warmly hued portrait of a woman whose life unravels yet flows stubbornly, and even humorously, onwards. Not to get all philosophical about it, but Things to Come is that rare movie where the future is shown to be neither dark nor bright. It just is.

Production companies: CG Cinema, Detail Film, Arte France Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinema
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Andre Marcon, Roman Kolinka, Edith Scob, Sarah Le Picard
Director, screenwriter: Mia Hansen-Love
Producer: Charles Gillibert
Director of photography:  Denis Lenoir
Production designer: Anna Falgueres
Costume designer: Rachele Raoult
Editor: Marion Monnier
Casting director: Elsa Pharaon
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Les Films du Losange

In French, German
100 minutes