Things to Come is just half the reason 2016 is the year of Isabelle Huppert. The 63-year-old French actress, who can capture, in a look, both the archetype of intelligence and the specter of despair, is the driving force in two excellent but worlds-apart films coming out this winter.
The first one is Things to Come (or L’avenir), which opens Friday at the Uptown Theatre. In this quiet but profound drama, Huppert is Nathalie, the philosophy teacher you could only dream of having in school. She’s easy-going, positive, uber intelligent, and will invite you over to her book-filled apartment to talk about life’s greatest questions and eat strawberries with her husband and two teenage children.
This sunny Parisian life seems the ideal of Western civilization, except for, perhaps, Nathalie’s needy, narcissistic mother (Edith Scob), who probably should be in a nursing home pretty soon. But other than that, things are good, really good. Nathalie’s favorite student from ages ago, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), is even turning out to be an anarchist philosophy heavyweight — and the writer, who’s work Nathalie helps publish, is handsome as hell to boot.
But then something happens that has us reflect on the film’s original title, which translates to “the future.” Nathalie loses everything, in a sense.
Suddenly, all that seemed to be at the core of her life (her marriage, her family, her career) changes in profound ways, which I won’t spoil here. The experience is like watching an otherwise graceful mountain climber fall after her footholds suddenly give way. There’s a slow-motion effect, the peculiar sense that what’s happening to oneself can’t be happening, although it obviously is. The experience is so terrifying and confusing that it’s almost funny — and, indeed, Nathalie finds herself laughing hysterically moments after weeping on a bus. It’s a gem of a scene.
Huppert, whose talents are hard to overstate, captures this sense of interpersonal freefall perfectly. Indeed, her character doesn’t panic, but tries to open herself to the terrifying freedom of her situation. She’s in the position of having to spread her wings in the autumn of her life, and, by God, she tries her damnedest, not changing who she is, for instance, when she visits Fabien on his anarchist cheese-making farm, but sticking to her philosophic guns even if her former pupil challenges the essence of her life.
As one might imagine, this descent into a new life is rather cerebral. Yet, despite Things to Come’s moments of longueur, it’s an undeniably deep meditation into harshness of life and the uncertainty of the future. This, if anything, has been the central theme of 2016, and it makes this film all the more vital and moving.
The other film Huppert carries this year is Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a bonkers thriller that exposes the darker elements of human nature like a dynamite excavation. To her talent in both films is beyond impressive, and it’s something a Minnesota cinephile to consider this season as we again face down the polar vortex.
Things to Come is playing at the Uptown Theatre.