It’s never a good idea to take public transportation home from a funeral, but sexagenarian philosophy professor Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) insists on learning that lesson the hard way. Crumpled against the window of a bus as it groans its way through the streets of Paris, Nathalie begins to cry. The teenage girl sitting in the seat across from her eyeballs the scene like she’s resisting the urge to Instagram it, like she has no idea that it’s only a matter of time before we’re all the woman crying on the bus. That’s when Nathalie spies Heinz (Andre Marcon), still technically her husband, walking around town with the young woman who recently inspired him to walk out on his wife of 25 years.
Sometimes, life is subtle — sometimes, it’s so in your face that you just have to laugh. And that’s exactly what Nathalie does, chortling in disbelief at the complete perfection with which her world has been turned upside down.
In step with all of the major characters in the films of Mia Hansen-Løve, Nathalie is a top who’s just begun to wobble, someone’s who’s trying to pretend that she can keep spinning on the strength of centrifugal force alone. Like the heartbroken teen girl in “Goodbye, First Love” or the aspiring DJ in “Eden” who holds fast to his dream long after reality should have set in, Hansen-Løve’s latest (and most layered) protagonist is a strong person for whom change does not come naturally. “I thought you’d love me forever,” she flatly tells Heinz on his way out the door, less angry at him for leaving her than she is at herself for being wrong.
A sixtysomething with a creased grin, lightly spotted hands and a frail mother who’s suffering from dementia (the iconic Edith Scob, of “Eyes Without a Face” and “Holy Motors” fame), Nathalie only appears to be an outlier for the 35-year-old Hansen-Løve, who tends to work with a more obvious whiff of autobiography. “Things to Come” is less a story of becoming than it is one of survival, but, as its relatively aged heroine begins to molt from the crust of her past and steel herself for the unwritten chapters of her life, those two goals begin to seem like one and the same.
This gentle, gracious, and preternaturally wise new film wends ever closer to Hansen-Løve’s heart as Nathalie stumbles forward through the seasons, one foot in front of the other. “Things to Come” may lack the urgency or cool that flecks the writer-director’s previous movies, but this is perhaps her richest piece to date, a warm, funny and profoundly sensitive portrait of letting go and learning to make new memories.
With every subsequent feature, Hansen-Løve makes an increasingly convincing case that she’s of the best filmmakers on the planet — at her current pace, the evidence should soon be overwhelming. “Things to Come” is characteristically unfussy about its brilliance, shaped by a settled version of the same restlessness that rippled through the French New Wave and nips at the heels of its descendants. There is poetry here, but all of the accidental kind that we find in our own lives. Nothing feels premeditated or divinely arranged, not the flow of Nathalie’s renewed existence nor the casually elegant compositions with which it’s framed (nor the handful tunes that fall over them during choice moments, all of them unexpected in their own way). Time skips ahead in fits and starts, so that viewers might need a moment or two to reorient themselves at the start of every scene — only the gray-blue prologue, in which Nathalie dawdles behind her family on a winter vacation to the shivering coast of Brittany, feels separate from the rest of the story.
All the while, Nathalie is forced to move forward like water against the rocks (to paraphrase the lyrics of a song with which Hansen-Løve’s fans are already well familiar: All that she is, is a river). Impatient but never impolite, she scoffs at the student protestors who try to summon the spirit of ’68 and shut down the university: “You can’t stop me from working!” The professor has been teaching there for longer than most of these kids have been alive, and she has no interest in stopping now. “I love my job,” she declares at one point, insulted by the thought that she would do it if she didn’t. “I’m in no rush to retire.”
Later, too late for Nathalie to get ahead of her problems and hem the fabric of her life before it begins to fray, she’ll read an excerpt of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to her students, a quote from his “Julie, or the New Heloise.” It goes: “Woe to him who has nothing to desire! He loses everything he owns. We enjoy less what we obtain than what we desire, and are happy only before becoming so.” Hansen-Løve is the daughter of two philosophy teachers, and while so many of her characters feel as though they were born directly from those words, Nathalie is the first to read them aloud.
She’s a realist, proud of how she’s evolved over the years — she embraces the fact that she’s grown up from being an outspoken Communist to a more grounded older woman, and laments how her husband still wants the same things that he did when they first met. It’s no small thing to say that Huppert has never been better than she is here (especially considering how fearless she is in the forthcoming “Elle”), but the latent sense of discovery she brings to the part makes the 63-year-old actress seem like a revelation all over again. It’s an incredibly honest performance in an incredibly honest role, Huppert equal parts reactive and self-aware as she allows Nathalie to grapple with the idea of total freedom (a struggle represented by an allergy to her new cat, Pandora). She delivers every line like it’s a gust of wind blowing through her body, and is often at her best in the throwaway beats where she’s saying nothing at all. In one telling moment, she stands on a plateau, looks over a stunning view of the valley below, and then turns away from the sight unsure what she’s supposed to do about it.
Hansen-Løve wrote the role with Huppert in mind, and it was a stroke of genius to cast someone who has lived her entire adult life on screen, who brings an extensive history to every heroine she plays. She’s been so many different people since her early twenties that it’s compellingly strange to watch her play someone who’s lost between parts, infinite and adrift. As if to ensure that the effect is not lost on us, Nathalie goes to a screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” a film consumed by the notion of people performing who they are (one that has the added bonus of starring the man who would play Huppert’s husband in “Amour”). It’s worth the price of admission just to see why Nathalie is chased out of the theater, and how she reacts to the situation — it’s a scene that cleverly teases the character’s sexuality into the foreground, underscoring the specificity of Hansen-Løve’s story, and that of a singular woman who has been made to feel replaceable.
More than just an homage to the great Kiarostami, Hansen-Løve’s meta-reference also points back to the very first scene of “Things to Come,” in which only one line of the philosophy text on Nathalie’s lap is translated for English-speaking viewers: “Can we put ourselves in the place of the other?” And what if the other is just another version of ourselves? Questions beget questions, and connections make themselves. Perhaps you’ll find yourself pointed to another of Huppert’s best films, “I Heart Huckabees,” and the existential quandary that hovered over that movie: “How am I not myself?” Mia Hansen-Løve’s modest and immensely beautiful new movie looks at the same idea from a different angle: It doesn’t ask Nathalie how she isn’t herself, but rather how she always will be, and it graciously invites us to share in the desire of wanting to find out.
“Things To Come” is playing at the New York Film Festival. It will open in theaters on December 2.