There are so many films that really try to be about something. “My movie’s about technology” or “My movie’s about parenting,” a writer or director or producer might say (or not-so-subtly display on the screen), hoping to grab onto the coattails of ephemeral salience. This isn’t to say that these movies are bad; on the contrary, they’re often critical in shaping our cultural, political and societal conversations. But these films often become polemic, spoiling their would-be fascinating life tales in favor of a “message.”
Rarer are the movies that aren’t really about anything, and in the process become about everything — about life, love, loss, longing, leaving. Films that illuminate the stories being lived by those around us: the lawyer handling your tort claim (see Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women”), your bus driver (see Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”) or your high school philosophy teacher.
That last one is the subject of “Things to Come,” the latest from up-and-coming French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (“Eden”). The film stars Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) as Nathalie, an aging philosophy instructor whose life begins to unravel. Her elderly mother is losing her marbles (and Nathalie temporarily adopts her allergy-inducing cat), she’s separating from her husband, also a philosophy teacher, after he meets someone else meanwhile, protesters, calling for better pensions, interrupt her teaching.
Nathalie, briefly a former Communist, is resilient. Her tragedies are met with grace; she defends herself against a publishing company turning their back on her, and she advocates for a former student turned intellectual and writer, Fabien (Roman Kolinka, “Eden”). As the travails of her daily life become more and more unbearable, she decides to visit Fabien to the sounds of Woody Guthrie in his new home outside of Paris, a rustic commune among the mountains.
Hansen-Løve and Huppert make a brilliant pair. The camera is always in motion, placing the audience within conversations. Hansen-Løve often opts to film a character’s reaction to a line; the effect is a deep understanding of the film’s relationships. When Heinz (André Marcon, “Marguerite”) tells Nathalie of his affair, we hear his guilt, but we see her anguish.
It helps that Huppert, undeniably one of the greatest living actors, is on screen for much of the film. She can easily slip into a role, fully living the part on film with ease. Nathalie is no exception. She can be feeble or forceful, intellectual or still learning. She’s a complex individual whose thoughts, actions and words are intricately brought to life.
Hansen-Løve’s screenplay, further, is quick, yet unburdened by clunky exposition in dialogue. Characters reveal facts through their language, but it feels perfectly natural, like a French Kenneth Lonergan.
At the risk of ascribing an “about” to a movie already deemed here to be “about” nothing in particular, “Things to Come” vividly portrays one woman’s navigation through compromises. Her philosophical treatises often intertwine with the dueling notions of thought and action — a debate rendered in real time among the protesting students, as well as within Fabien’s internal struggle over how to create a better world. But Hansen-Løve did not have to compromise: this movie sings, from the stunning shots of the French countryside to the kitchen sink drama set against bookshelves, once overloaded but now with some of their contents ripped out — casualties from separation.