As Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) walks along the Grand Bé tidal island near Saint-Malo, France while on vacation during the opening of Things to Come, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve locates her mid-conversation with Heinz (André Marcon), her husband, discussing music as a visual medium. After Nathalie says she wouldn’t listen to a certain piece of music at home (the piece in question isn’t clear), Heinz counters, “You’ll have to see it performed…it’s meant to be seen, not just heard.” Heinz’s statement doubles as a covert imperative to the viewer, though its implication should be taken in reverse: If we’re to fully understand Things to Come, we’ll have to listen for its rhythms in addition to perceiving Nathalie’s loosening grip on her environment, and feel its pulsating force to comprehend the totality of its sensorial value.
By taking this brief prologue as a starting point, Hansen-Løve defers a proper introduction for her characters until later into the film. She used the same approach to commence Eden, with Paul, an aspiring DJ, crawling up a ladder and moving away from the beats emanating from within a nightclub. In these beginnings, both Nathalie and Paul are in retreat from their realities, and seek solace in the false calm of momentary isolation. The two films can be seen as flipsides of the same coin: If Eden charts Paul’s failing ascent into maturation and inability to recognize components of his own fears and desires in others, then Things to Come chronicles a decline from achieved status and leisure in Nathalie’s disconnect from a life of rigidly defined purpose.
After Eden’s steady, groovy walls of sound, which ironically stood in for Paul’s fractured self-worth, Hansen-Løve opts for a minimal sonic design throughout Things to Come, with only environmental noises underlining a number of key scenes. The film’s relative lack of music helps to reinforce Nathalie’s stark realization of displacement through several sharp, unannounced intrusions within her secure life. The first comes in bed, as her elderly mother, Yvette (Edith Scob), phones during the middle of the night, seeking attention more than actual assistance. At the high school where Nathalie works as a philosophy teacher, shrieks ring out from a student protest advocating worker rights. Later, in a meeting with several publishing executives, Nathalie sees the new cover of her book, which features loud, bright colors. When asked what she thinks, Nathalie exclaims: “It’s bad beyond belief…a total eye-sore.” The execs insist it’s “modern, aggressive, and catchy.”
These three traits couldn’t describe Nathalie less, at least in her present state. Lecturing on philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his ideas of revolution, she exhibits little passion or energy, as she’s recited these words many times before. Hansen-Løve renders these shrill assails on Nathalie’s life as a rolling stone of irreversible change, which parallels a contemporary France that is itself caught in a state of confusion and loss of collective purpose. When President Nicolas Sarkozy appears on television saying, “I am aware that people suffer,” it’s a nascent gesture of equivocal appeasement. At least Nathalie, even as her life begins to crumble, remains direct in her perceptions.
That deterioration takes full effect when Heinz announces that he’s leaving Nathalie for another woman. Enter Fabien (Roman Kolinka), one of Nathalie’s former students and a strong-willed doctoral candidate. Fed up with life in Paris, Fabien explains that he’s moving to a farm in the mountains to “make cheese and write.” Hansen-Løve relates the young man’s affable smugness through smaller moments, as when he dismisses a book Nathalie lent him for its “confusion of radicalism and terrorism.” It’s not that his impressions are lame, but that he delivers the critical line as a matter of fact, and is unresponsive to Nathalie’s claims to the contrary. It’s the sharpest incident in Things to Come, precisely encapsulating the paucity of connection that comes from Fabien’s preferred form of terse, dismissive argumentation.
A later exchange at the farm further keys into the beats of their conversations to reveal his haughty demeanor. Upon finding a Slavoj Žižek book, Nathalie inquires about its quality. The scene unfolds with her asking question after question in response to Fabien’s dismissive, conceited answers that only speak to his own interests, so that she exits the room after her one, singular assertion: “Revolution is not my goal…mine is more humble. To help kids think for themselves.” The deftness of Hansen-Løve’s hand is that, outwardly, the statement confirms Nathalie’s defiance of Fabien’s casual bullying, but it doesn’t, in turn, restore Nathalie’s confidence in her past decisions.
Thus, an earlier declaration to Fabien of despising the music she’s listened to for the last 20 years becomes even more important in hindsight. At that point, with her husband gone, her children distant, her mother dead, and her book deal fallen through, there’s no apparent recourse for Nathalie except toward Fabien and his cultural tastes: a Woody Guthrie CD. As the pair ride in his car, she offers: “Nice music.” Fabien, typically oppositional, counters: “I’m sick of it. Only CD in the car that works.” As Nathalie plasters a smile on her face and puffs at a cigarette, the impact of her altered circumstances hits with sudden impact, which Huppert exquisitely registers as a moment of total uncertainty.
Nathalie wants to hear Woody Guthrie and feel Fabien’s viewpoints, but they’re categorically not of her world. Therefore, subsequently rejecting his worldview constitutes an absolute break from this realm, these people, and a now-suffocating mode of thought. When a non-diegetic song finally cues during the final scene of Things to Come, it’s an overwhelmingly restorative moment to Nathalie’s life, certainly, but also further confirmation of Hansen-Løve’s delicately devastating ear and touch as a filmmaker.