Things to Come (2016)
Isabelle Huppert is one of French cinema’s finest and her name alone is enough to raise expectations of Things to Come (2016). At a glance, the film promises much: a strong storyline, a beautiful setting, an iconic star. The post-divorce adjustment cycle of trauma, grief, renewal and anticipation of new beginnings is full of cinematic potential. Instead, we find an abundance of prolonged silence, empty space and vacant stares: the promise of things to come is never fulfilled.
Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a contented academic intellectual who busies herself in the world of philosophy. Her long marriage is abruptly terminated by her equally intellectual husband who has found a new love, an announcement he makes with as much emotion as ordering home-delivery pizza. Nathalie’s response similarly has as much depth as a quibble over pastrami or ham topping and she remains at this level throughout. Then her textbook contract is cancelled because of falling interest in philosophy and her high-maintenance mother passes away. All three triggers offer freedom, but Nathalie stalls in self-despair and victimhood.
She attaches herself to a former student to search for her youth and affection, a hope doomed from the start. Her estranged husband moves on with a full life in contrast to her own aimless search to fill the void that now consumes her. Despite her lofty philosophical grasp on life and frequent quotations from eminent authors, she becomes just another woman who is a victim of a man’s decision. The film studies her loneliness with voyeuristic intensity as if her version of abandonment is somehow more enlightened than others, but it is not.
The film is cinematically warm with an intimate style of photography, but the characterisation is shallow. A self-absorbed introvert before the breakup, Nathalie speaks of the joys of new-found freedom but simply cannot act on her new opportunities. If this film was given to a lesser actress than Huppert it would struggle for air. It still does, but it breathes. It stretches patience for a film to hope that empty silence and prolonged focus on inconsequential or motionless detail will be read through the lens of Huppert’s past reputation for inspired depth of meaning and emotional intensity.
It may well be that the emptiness of this story is entirely intended. If so, it will be seen by many as a great success. The musical score gives the story some uplift, even hope, but there are limits to what can be achieved with even the most haunting acapella rendition of Unchained Melody or lively Arlo Guthrie singalong. The ambivalent climax and the emotional ambiguity of the film itself is the only lasting memory.
Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Andre Marcon, Roman Kolinka