It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a collaboration between revered French actress Isabelle Huppert and writer/director Mia Hansen-Love (Father of my Children, Goodbye First Love) could result in something altogether tedious, but that is exactly what has transpired with Things to Come, a drama that, like its central character, is more interested in being intelligent than interesting. There is plenty of potential in this story about Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert), a middle-aged university professor who endures a series of setbacks in her personal and professional life over the course of a year, but nothing that happens really amounts to anything remotely interesting or insightful. The premise certainly lends itself to numerous of moments of self-reflection and reinvention, but Hansen-Love never capitalises on these opportunities. As a result, the story plays out as something that is, like its protagonist, not particularly interesting.
Nathalie is a philosophy teacher who possesses such a highly inflated sense of self-importance that you take an instant disliking to her and, as a result, it is impossible to engender any sympathy for anything that happens to her over the course of the film. Sure, her husband Heinz leaves her for another woman, she loses a publishing deal and her sick mother is forced to take up residence in a nursing home, but none of that is dealt with in any way that makes for an interesting viewing experience. I mean, despite these issues, she still leads a pretty charmed existence and never engages in any introspection or self-reflection; seemingly unable to accept that she could possibly have any role to play in the course of events. In her mind, she is simply a victim of other people’s failings, her arrogant demeanour on show in the opening moments via her disdain for student protestors who dare to disrupt her classes. In Nathalie’s mind, there is nothing more important than Nathalie and when the biggest burden she endures through it all is having to take on the responsibility of caring for her mother’s cat, it is hard to muster much interest in what transpires, which is actually very little anyway.
Her friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student and wannabe anarchist, promises to inject some life into proceedings, but even this narrative thread fails to develop into anything more than another opportunity for Nathalie to exercise her sense of superiority, dismissive of the ideological idealism that Fabien and his comrades possess. In fact, she continues to visit the commune on which Fabien lives only because, it seems, with her children now grown up, Heinz having moved on, her mother no longer needing her and no other friends to speak of, it serves as her only form of social interaction. Of course, lead characters do not have to be nice to be interesting and some of the best movie characters have been particularly evil people, but there is nothing about Nathalie that makes you care one way or the other about what happens to her. She is arrogant and perhaps delusional about her place in the world order and this never changes. There is no moment of great revelation and there is no point at which she is called upon to question, or even acknowledge, her over-inflated sense of self. It is Heinz (Andre Marcon) who emerges as the most interesting character of all, conflicted about his decision to leave and struggling to cope with the changes it brings to his life.
Whilst the overall sense of Hansen-Love’s intention with Things to Come seems to be that you are just watching a life unfold, the problem is that this particular life, and the person living it, is neither pleasant nor particularly interesting. If I wanted to watch somebody living their life from day-to-day, I could just watch my neighbours going about their daily grind. There is little reason to care about what things are to come for Nathalie because we can be pretty sure that it will be more of her looking down on all and sundry, blissfully ignorant of anybody else’s problems.