Late in mid-life Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), a Paris high school philosophy teacher, suffers a string of punishing losses that threaten not just her well-being and sense of fulfillment, but her entire identity as a wife, daughter, mother and professional woman. Her husband (Andre Marcon) announces he's moving in with the mistress he's kept a secret for many years. Nathalie is forced to move the fragile mother (Edith Scob) she has propped up since childhood into assisted living; it doesn't go well. Nathalie's children grow up and away, and her prize student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), once so dependent on her guidance and approval, begins to think for himself. To make matters worse, her publishers are discreetly nudging her textbooks onto the remainder shelves. Suddenly Nathalie is free of obligation, and it's scary.
L'avenir (Things to Come), a marvelous slow burn of domestic drama written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love (2009's Le père de mes enfants (Father Of My Children)), observes with quiet rigor how these crises work themselves into the inner life of a woman accustomed to taking charge. You might call the movie a character study, but as in the best novels, nothing about Nathalie or those around her is explained or psychologized into a neat personality profile. Nathalie's a dynamic being, and she might have been written for Huppert. No one gives and — crucially — withholds information as expressively as Huppert, a bundle of strategically mixed signals encased in a tiny body tensed for action and reaction. Her quizzical green eyes register amused enigma, disbelief and suffering while daring us to feel anything so trite as pity for her plight. In Huppert, deadpan means tumult wreaking havoc within.
We come to know Nathalie through the heaped detail and busy rhythms of her inexorably depleting roles: her absent-minded mothering; the increasingly acid banter she exchanges with her husband; the darkening themes of the books she reads; the philosophers she quotes to the students who, to her evident exasperation, seem to be reenacting the same rebellions she helped stage as a Communist in the 1960s.
She's wrong about that and much else too, but Nathalie is always on the move, a whirl of adaptation to the falling dominoes of her small life and the broader social changes that promise to eclipse her generation. Yet she's a sturdy, practical woman who faces up to divorce by immediately clearing her possessions from the country home she has loved, but which belong to her husband. She's moving on, but to what?
Like many children of mothers who can't cope, Nathalie is a compulsive coper with a seemingly endless gift for damage control. Yet she can be blind and deaf to the needs of those she loves and to the multiplying signs of trouble that we discover with her as she moves restlessly through a French summer and winter, carrying her mother's cranky old cat between home and the lovely mountain commune Fabien has founded, where disenchantment doesn't let up.
According to production notes, Hansen-Love drew on her parents' marriage and divorce to make this film, and Things to Come may be read as a tribute to her mother. It's also a clear-eyed account of how time and adversity wash more harshly over women than it does over men. On the cusp of old age, Nathalie's options narrow relative to those around her. There is a recovery of sorts, but one that seems to entail a shift in perception rather than in her situation. It's possible to feel both devastated and encouraged by the elegiac final moments of Things to Come, when the camera travels slowly around Nathalie's warmly lit home as she serves Christmas dinner to her family, which has a saving new member. Then it pans away to the final song from the eclectic soundtrack, a wistful cover of "Unchained Melody." Time goes by so slowly/And time can do so much. It may leave the door slightly open on Nathalie's future, or it might seal her fate. Either way, it serves as the unifying credo of this beautiful film.