Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film as a director plays out a little like an archetypal country-and-western song: our hero (in this case, Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie) loses a succession of the most valuable things and people in her life, yet somehow gets by, and even gets stronger. It works as a fascinating companion piece to Elle, Huppert’s Oscar-nominated film from last year, in which her character put on a brave face following one of the most wretched traumas a human being may be put through. Here, the traumatic events are more mundane, but her resilience is similar. She smiles at fate.
Nathalie is a Parisian philosophy professor, and her philosophical approach to life seems to be the film’s raisin d’être, for it otherwise eschews a lot of dramatic practice, and a lot of drama. Life happens to Nathalie, but the ramifications aren’t necessarily going to be contained within the movie’s brisk hundred and two minutes. You might call it a character study, or a slice of life, but it’s a bit more than that. Nathalie’s resistance to self-pity is quietly inspiring, and her advocation of philosophy and intellectual engagement to deal with life’s blows – its unfairness – is good advice in troubled times.
Huppert plays Nathalie with her customary brilliance and sense of detachment. She’s become invincible and so, it seems, have her recent characters. The chink in her armour may be her interest in a past student of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka, tall, handsome, and so perfectly cast that you’d swear he was off to a discussion on radical thinking the moment he leaves any frame.) Fabien has taken Nathalie’s philosophical teachings to heart, and taken them further; he’s moving with a group of like-minded young people onto a farm, where they continue a post-graduate academic lifestyle of self-sufficiency and revolutionary ideas. In this context – Nathalie visits the farm twice – she is visibly old and bourgeois, stuck in the comforts of academia. To her, the students may seem comically idealistic, or they may be living the dream; her attitude to Fabien is similarly conflicted, and the film’s most tantalising question is, of course, whether the relationship is going to take a sexual turn.
Hansen-Løve shoots sunnily; Nathalie’s Paris is relatively calm and spacious, with a glorious riverbank which she takes her students to occasionally. Watching this group of smart young people discuss philosophy on the banks of the Seine will scratch your Francophile itch, c’est pour dire. Whether the film scratches your dramatic itch depends on how much you need; Things to Come is, like its protagonist, hardly prone to hysteria of any kind. It is based directly on Hansen-Løve’s mother, and observes the casual reality of life.