What are we talking about when we call a movie “bad.” The new Mia Hansen-Løve film Things to Come is a film I intend to give a two and a half out of five star rating, which under the old Ebert rules would qualify as a “thumbs down,” and yet I certainly think it’s better than various movies I’ve given three stars to this year like Deadpool, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and The Conjuring 2. Is this simply a matter of expectations? Of holding non-genre films from respected auteurs to a higher standard? To some extent, yes and yes. Those three “three star” movies were all movies I watched on blu-ray instead of in theaters and on some level it’s a lot easier to casually give a “light pass” to something I’m throwing on at home versus something I actually drove to a theater and paid to see. Also, yeah, to some extent I do have to take the fact that certain movies have more modest goals in mind when I look at them, and that does give something of an advantage to a movie that just wants to show a super hero making dick jokes over a movie about a woman’s existential crisis following a divorce. If that sounds unfair, well the catch is that when they’re done right these movies I’m holding to a higher standard stand a much better chance of getting a very high rating, which is probably more of an advantage than a disadvantage. But perhaps I’m getting way ahead of myself and setting the wrong tone for my review of Things to Come.
The film is set in more or less contemporary France (presumably a few years ago as it’s established that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president and there’s some sort of economic austerity measure that everyone’s abuzz about) and focuses on a woman named Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert). Chazeaux is a middle aged philosophy professor living in upper-middle class domesticity with a husband and two teenage/young adult children. This all takes quite a blow when it’s revealed that her husband has been cheating on her and intends to divorce. Meanwhile, her mother’s mental and physical health has been in decline, which has taken up a lot of her energy and she’s also taking a few hits to her professional standings as of late. That’s a lot to take all at once and the tension of the movie is all about how she’s going to react.
The only other Mia Hansen-Løve film I’ve seen is her last film, Eden, which looked at something like ten or twenty years in the life of an EDM DJ as he rises and falls in the world of Parisian house music. I admired that film’s ambition and the scope of the story it was trying to tell, but its central character never quite intrigued me enough and I didn’t really care for Félix de Givry work in that role. Things to Come seems to have the opposite problem in many ways: it has a fascinating central character played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert, but Hansen-Løve never quite seems to provide an interesting enough movie to put her in. Nathalie is a character with some fairly complex depths, she’s clearly a dedicated to her philosophy studies but it’s never entirely clear that what philosophical school of thought she belongs to, if any, and she seems to react to all the personal turmoil she goes through in the year or so the film takes place in with aplomb.
The character’s general strength is however something of a double-edged sword. The general format the film is seemingly supposed to follow is: “woman goes through hell, finds her way out, and is stronger for the experience.” And yet, in many ways Nathalie is so strong that all this craziness only barely seems to faze her and you never really get the impression that she isn’t going to persevere through adversity. Of course there is something to be said for the film not going down the entirely expected and it is interesting to watch the character handle all this like a pro, but there is a point where it kind of robs the film of drama and conflict. What’s more I feel like the movie starts and ends in strange places; we see a lot of how her life falls apart but when it gets the “I will survive” portion it just cuts forward a year, plays a coda, and then ends. I don’t know, I think I might be missing something here and I’d be willing to read up on people’s interpretations of it but for the most part the film just kind of seemed to go nowhere and if there’s any profundity in what we are given it’s kind of lost on me. Still, that cerntral performance is quite good and the movie is an engaging enough watch even if it’s point was lost on me so you can do a whole lot worse than this but I want my arthouse movies to leave me with a little more to chew on than this.