Things to Come is, in many ways, the Frenchest possible movie. In its subject, its narrative, and its style, Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest isn’t quite exaggeratedly French enough to classify as self-parody. It’s more like something that is unwittingly striving to be the Platonic ideal of a certain form, stripped of all distinction. In that sense, the recent film it reminds me most of, weirdly, is Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario; there’s a moment about halfway through that film where, driving in an armored vehicle past hanged corpses swinging from a highway overpass, the gruff and cynical older cop tells the hungry but still naive younger cop “Welcome to Juárez.” It’s at that moment you realize that Sicario is the film-within-a-film removed from the film it’s within, as though someone went to the trouble to try and actually make Billy Walsh’s Medellín.
Things to Come seems more like the French movie that would be within another movie, maybe a romance between two young artsy New Yorkers. They’d go on a date to see it, argue about what it means, transparently projecting their own relationship troubles and disparate worldviews onto the film. All this to say that Things to Come, all its other strengths and flaws aside, lacks almost any sense of distinction. It is a sketch of itself.
Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is a Parisian philosophy professor; she is married (André Marcon) with two teenage kids, and dotes over her aging mother (Édith Scob) as well as her favorite former student (Roman Kolinka). Her life seems fine, if not a little bourgeoisie. Then, of course, it all starts Falling Apart™—her husband leaves her for his younger mistress; her mother’s health collapses; her kids leave for school; her profit-motivated publisher increasingly her work’s lack of profitability; her favorite former student starts an anarchist collective in the mountains somewhere. Didn’t I say it was all so very French? The only thing it lacks is a non-sequitur film noir-esque scene involving a mime, or perhaps Kenan Thompson in a bathtub.
Because it is so very French, Things to Come doesn’t make what you think it might out of its Job story. Yes, several bad things happen in quick succession to our protagonist and…she is sad, then life goes on. Nathalie doesn’t to appear to have any special reservoirs of strength, nor does she ever truly crack. She deals with each crisis as it comes until they stop coming, then finds herself in a new and stable life that she can live with. She does not appear to grow or learn in any meaningful way. It is not clear whether any of her preexisting beliefs are reinforced or shaken. A funeral in a Gothic cathedral seems to hint at the entry of faith into a film that otherwise has no space for it, but it amounts to nothing. I’m not enough of a philosophe to see whether the protagonist’s passion for philosophy actually shapes or reflects her decisions or, as seems more likely, she is completely detached from it. Is that detachment the point? And why was the film set against the backdrop of strikes and protests against the pension reform policies of former French President Sarkozy? Hard to say.
“Hard to say” is, in fact, the best possible summary of Things to Come, a film whose title I could not for the life of me remember the whole time I was watching and reviewing it. Huppert’s performance is, in its own context, very strong, and by far the most compelling element of the film. But even that performance seems to fall tantalizingly short of the sum of its parts. The strangest thing about Things to Come is that it is difficult to identify precisely why it falls so short; nothing about it is bad, exactly, and individual criticisms seem too easily reframed as asking the film to be something it’s distinctly not. Perhaps the problem is that, in trying not to be certain things, Things to Come never figures out what it is trying to be.