There’s a remarkable sequence in the latter part of Things to Come that illuminates so elegantly the many moving strands of this simple story about the inner complexities of being human.
Nathalie, an acclaimed philosopher gracefully portrayed by Isabelle Huppert, takes the dais at a memorial service for her mother (Edith Scob), an unmanageable neurotic who tested her daughter’s love at every turn. A narcissistic, hypochondriac former actress, she died shortly after Nathalie put her in a rest home.
Relieved of the burden of her mother’s demands, which makes her feel ever more wracked by guilt, Nathalie reads a passage from Pascal’s famous Pensées about the thinker’s inability to divine the existence of the Divine from nature alone. Isolated, confused, he asks for a sign so that he can know for certain how to live well, how to do good.
The text lingers as a voice-over as we see Nathalie weeping on her way home alone on a bus.
Then she happens to see her estranged husband (André Marcon) on the sidewalk strolling arm in arm with his young girlfriend. Nathalie is shocked for a fraction of a second, then she begins to laugh gently at herself.
Moments like this permeate Things to Come, a deeply satisfying film of ideas from French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love, Eden) that explores ways in which the life of the mind illuminates – or conflicts – with lived reality.
Huppert, 63, who this week was nominated for an Oscar for her turn in Elle, an emotionally wrenching thriller about rape, is equally superb here in a far different role as a woman forced to acknowledge that she's also unable to see the signs Pascal seeks.
A former '60s radical turned college professor, Nathalie is now part of the Establishment, a famous prof whose textbooks have become standard reading in philosophy courses.
Then one by one, she is stripped of all the trappings that made her life predictable and safe: Her mom dies, her husband of 25 years leaves her, and their two kids (Sarah Le Picard and Solal Forte) depart for college.
Hansen-Løve paces the action perfectly as it draws her protagonist through the several stages of her trial by fire.
As if things weren’t bad enough, Nathalie also loses her publisher: The new marketing team decides her textbooks aren’t sexy enough. They’re too austere, too old-fashioned.
Things truly come to a head when Nathalie’s protégé, a beautiful young radical doctoral student named Fabien (Roman Kolinka) challenges her to reexamine her bourgeois lifestyle.
Hansen-Løve has a lot of fun with Fabien’s character. He lives on a group farm with a gaggle of fellow young radicals where they raise goats, listen to Woody Guthrie, and discuss how they can put their radical ideas into radical action while smoking a lot of cigarettes.
At its satirical best, Things to Come takes aim at some of the sacred cows of French academia, showing how the posturing of today’s radical kids seems to repeat the attitudes their parents had in the '60s.
Will they simply grow up to be like Nathalie, with her bourgeois attachments to her house and her things, to her husband, and her kids?
The film asks: Is radicalism self-defeating, fated to turn either to violence and terrorism or to mellow into bourgeois liberalism?
Hansen-Løve’s film reminds me of the work of Eric Rohmer: Visually arresting, but never precious, it’s filled with ideas that have relevance to actual life, ideas that are based on a moral conviction that a question well-posed is far more valuable than an easy answer.