The books look like a fortress. The Parisian home of philosophy teacher Nathalie Chazeaux’s home are filled almost wall-to-wall with shelves of books. It’s the sort of library you can tell has taken a lifetime for her and her husband to accumulate.
About halfway through Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things To Come,” the shelves are half-empty, a signifier for both the turmoil and the opportunity that Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is dealing with. She has lost some of her favorite books. But now she has room to buy new ones.
The first half of Hansen-Love’s empathetic film, now out on DVD from Sundance Selects and streaming on Netflix – charts the unsettling of Nathalie’s seemingly settled life. Her publisher declines to renew her published books, letting them go out of print. Her adult children have left home. Her reclusive mother (Irene Scob) seems to be getting worse and may need to be moved into a rest home. Most devastatingly, her husband of a quarter century (Andre Marcon) leaves her for another woman.
Huppert is not an actress who ever falls to pieces on screen, and neither does Nathalie. (“I’m taking it rather well,” she insists). She soldiers on forward, although we see the cracks, the moments when she stares off into space and her life catches up with her. Hansen-Love (“Eden”) is an observational sort of filmmaker who doesn’t force narrative onto her characters, instead letting them seem to live life on screen before our eyes.
The second half of “Things To Come” shows Nathalie adjusting to this new life of “total freedom,” as she puts it, with a mixture of exhilaration and terror. But this is no Hollywood movie about a middle-aged woman getting her groove back – the changes are subtle, and not always positive. Nathalie goes off into the mountains to visit a favorite pupil (Roman Kolinka, who starred in “Eden”) at his commune-like farmhouse. We assume that they’ll get involved in some kind of tryst. But life, and “Things to Come,” is more complicated than that.
Instead of building up to big moments, Hansen-Love seasons her film with perceptive little ones, an approach that perfectly suits Huppert’s incisive, luminous performance. The one that sticks with me is where Nathalie, sobbing as she grieves a loss on the bus, catches sight of her ex-husband and his new girlfriend on the street. The juxtaposition is so awful that she can’t stop laughing at it.
“Things To Come” ends with a seemingly ordinary scene of domestic tranquility, and the choice of music on the soundtrack – a cover of “Unchained Melody” – is perfect. Nathalie is unchained from the life she thought she would live, and freedom is a beautiful and scary thing.