Film review: Things to Come
‘So long as we desire, we can go without happiness… we enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy.’ Nathalie says, quoting French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel, Julie to her students.
When it comes to loss, any sort of loss requires a reinvention of self or a change of self in order to cope. Mia Hansen-Løve’s drama, Things to Come is the story of Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) a French philosophy teacher who has to reinvent her life after losing her husband, her mother and her job. Nathalie is an intellectual, an academic, choosing to surround her world with books on philosophy and filling her head with thoughts rather than worry about any changes her personal life may entail.
Often seen with a book in hand, Nathalie reads not only for herself but for us to understand changes in her character that play out in Hansen-Løve’s script. Beginning with Enzensberger’s The Radical Loser, a book which speaks of the unpredictable nature of socially isolated individuals to a scene in which illustrated philosophy books are gifted to her first grandchild, Nathalie chooses to immerse herself in her extensive knowledge of philosophy, something she has known all her life and teaches as part of her job in order to cope with challenges she may face or as the title suggests, the things to come.
Basing the character of Nathalie on both Huppert and her own mother a philosophy professor who got divorced later in life, Hansen-Løve develops a female character who shows great resilience in light of circumstance, aware of the difficulties of starting over when her youth has faded. For Huppert to portray a character in later years, an unusual trend with onscreen actresses tending to glamourise beauty and signs of youthfulness, we see the effects of time. With dark circles under her eyes, dishevelled hair, wrinkles that unfold before her as she runs through an array expressions; it is obvious that time has caught up. Her love for philosophy however, remains constant and is something that, being a passion she lives for, cannot be taken from her and is considered eternal and will last well beyond her years. It’s a nice sentiment Hansen-Løve presents to her audience when the pressure to be someone isn’t based on one’s appearance, circumstance or socially set expectations but on one’s passions.
Hansen-Løve brushes over seemingly significant moments throughout the film, managing to remove their emphasis by having Huppert’s character react in a way that seems to accept situations as they arise. Witnessing Nathalie mourn the death of her mother or for us to see the breakdown of her marriage is almost made to be routine, there is no resistance or dramatic tension written within the script but acceptance, allowing for self-reflection in an almost simplified storyline.
Nathalie’s ageing mother, Yvette (Édith Scob), quickly begins to become a burden, finding herself dependent on Nathalie, calling for help at the most inconvenient times and often complaining to her daughter about the most trivial things. Unable to care for her mother in accordance with her busy lifestyle, Nathalie sends her off to live in a retirement home until her passing, which is referenced by a line of dialogue, ‘she fell.’
With the death of her mother, Nathalie’s circumstances change and although her passing is to be expected, it still changes the course of her life, propelling her to seek out new experiences and reinvent her life. By using a phone call to deliver the news, Hansen-Løve scripts the scene almost without emotion or at least the bare minimum of it by revealing only half of the conversation from Nathalie’s perspective. Even the eulogy is presented in accordance with tradition at her mother’s funeral, as Nathalie reads a quote from Pascal’s Wager on God’s Existence in a near empty chapel even though her mother was not Catholic. ‘This is what I see, and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet. If I saw no signs of a divinity, I would fix myself in denial.’ Conforming to religious tradition but not really seeming to believe it herself, the death of her mother causes Nathalie to question the things she has known her entire life and these doubts create an opportunity for the reinvention of self.
In an earlier scene, Nathalie presents philosophical ideas to her students debating the validity of truth whilst her daughter confronts her father Heinz (André Marcon), Nathalie’s husband, of his infidelities and asks him to tell Nathalie the truth on the matter. Through the juxtaposition of scenes we as the audience learn that truth is relative, often based on context and established overtime. ‘Debating the truth is one thing, contesting it is another’ she explains to her class, for the nature of facts or truth may stay the same but how it is received, can change. Her request for the affair to stay secret is one which shows a refusal of the truth being revealed because, for her, the consequences of knowing the truth are life-changing. For many, identity is often determined by routine and changes in this routine cause a reinvention of self, sometimes forced by circumstance and unwanted by the individual.
Things to Come is a reflective piece referencing many ideas on philosophy in particular on social theory and existentialism that reveal to be embedded in both Nathalie’s teaching and general approach to life. Despite the loss of her husband, mother and job, Nathalie refers to the stage of her life as freeing and learns to understand that true happiness is about contentment. Just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about going without happiness and being ‘happy only before being happy’, Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come reassures us that the opportunity of reinventing oneself is all about perspective, the acceptance of truth no matter the circumstance and that true happiness is based on one’s hope for the future.
Things to Come will be in Australian cinemas from April 27. For other countries, check local listings.
Review by Addy Fong.