In a fictional context, life is often rendered in big, bold, exclamation-rich, declarative moments, ripe with portentous meaning and unable to be shrugged off with a cursory nod and a move on to the next task of hand.
But the reality is that the emotionally-intense moments of our lives often sit cheek-by-jowl with the unyielding need to carry on with things, to pay bills, front up to work and to put dinner on the table; in other words, you usually don’t have the luxury of being in the bubble of that pivotal moment of time for the time it will take to fully resolve it, if that can be even be done.
Things to Come (L’avenir), written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, understands this truism all too well, placing its big emphatic, punctuation moments hard up against the daily business of life to authentically-pleasing effect.
Nathalie Chazaeaux (the incomparable Isabelle Huppert) is already juggling a sizable pile of commitments – teaching philosophy, writing and philosophy textbooks and editorials and looking after aged, melodramatic mother (Edith Scob) – when her husband Heinz (André Marcon) announces he has met someone else and is moving out.
It’s shocking news and Nathalie is, as you can imagine, shell-shocked at the sudden turn of events – though she admits later she wasn’t necessarily surprised by the turn of events, just their suddenness – but she has no time to wallow in a pool of sadness and recrimination.
Life simply doesn’t grant her that luxury, and so while she does shed more than a few tears as she moves her stuff out of their couple’s beach house in Brittany and turns over beloved texts from the couple’s shared library to Heinz’s sole ownership, she has little choice but to keep moving on with teaching her students, attending to her mother and dealing with her publishers who want to, ahem, go in another direction with her material.
In other words, life just keeps rolling in and while she might want to curl up in the fetal position and marinate in her enervating loss, the reality is she simply can’t.
Things to Come, in its own quiet way, aided by Huppert, who is a master of conveying a lot with very little, powerfully articulates this reality, often in a self-aware, meta kind of way such as Nathalie is talking to her favourite ex-student Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who is now an anarchist making cheese with a collective on a remote farm, and observes that she couldn’t take up with an old man (boring), or even a young man since the latter option only ever happens in the movies.
It’s this embrace of the reality of life that imbues the film with so much understated impact.
It faithfully observes that while we might want to take a step back, lick our wounds, observe and reorient ourselves, that time and circumstances don’t allow that, and any reinvention, if it occurs, has to take place on the run, made up inbetween a host of pressing commitments that won’t take a ticket and wait for a more opportune time.
So it is that Nathalie, emotionally-devastated and floundering, even as she tells those around her such as Fabien and her children that she is fine, takes a step forward and three steps back, less an Eat, Pray, Love epiphany than a decided work in progress who doesn’t get everything right the first time around.
There are no disastrous missteps, the kind that lesser films would have turn into some overwrought narrative exclamation mark, simply the messy business of knowing you have little option to go forward but hampered by the idea that you’re entirely sure what that involves.
It’s that adherence to the chaotic reality of living life that invests Things to Come with so much power.
Aided by Huppert’s ability to balance the ordinary and the cataclysmic and react much as you would expect anyone to, the film is an observational tour de force, an assuming one but a tour de force nonetheless, that never ever resorts to easy, overwrought or cheaply sensational moments.
We’re well and truly down in the trenches with Nathalie on this one, and while there are moments of joy and some promising revelations such as when Nathalie, grappling with her separation and the death of her mother, realises she is free for the first time in her life, Things to Come never allows us to think there are quick options or convenient escape routes hiding at expedient points in the storyline.
This doesn’t mean that the film is dour and unforgivingly bleak; quite the contrary in fact, despite its premise, with an easy, slice-of-life vibe percolating through every scene.
There is no rush to get anywhere in particular nor any suggestion that everything will be quickly resolved, or if that is even possible; rather events proceed much as they would in life, with some punctuation points sure but a whole lot of demanding, middling inbetween.
Such is life and Things to Come, anchored by Huppert’s superlative performance, acknowledges this in the richest, most quietly transcendent way possible, giving us in the process a vital, realistic and emotionally-affecting (thought never overplayed) portrayal of someone at a transformative part of their life who has no choice but to keep putting one foot in front of the other even as events run rampant around them.