Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come offers the most distinctly French pleasures. These include apartment walls entirely filled with books, casual intellectual conversations, a nonchalant attitude toward unfaithfulness, and, most notably, Isabelle Huppert, who plays a resilient philosophy teacher at a high school in Paris. How not to love a film in which all characters seem to have read Arthur Schopenhauer and whose main character is a woman who needs Hannah Arendt more than she needs a man?
Such is Nathalie’s (Huppert) non-plight: a journey into her erudite self-sufficiency. In the film’s most Bergman-esque moment, her husband, Heinz (André Marcon), of 25 years announces, and matter of factly, that he’s met someone and will live with her. Nathalie is disappointed, but hardly crushed—like someone who hears about the death of a distant relative who was ill for a long time. She has other passions after all. Her marriage isn’t contingent to her satisfaction, but more of a defaulted décor to her bourgeois existence. When the husband leaves, she’s most shaken by the gaps left in the living room’s bookshelves. He’s less of a bastard for exchanging her for a younger woman than he is for having taken her copy of Emmanuel Levinas.
Nathalie is now free to spend more time with one of her former students (Roman Kolinka), who learned to love philosophy through her. Their passion for critical thinking unites them, even if his radical idealism distances himself from her well-seasoned acquiescence. Little does it matter. Nathalie is immune to the haunting absence of men, whose tendency for abandonment fails to bruise her. Even her publisher’s killing of her next volume doesn’t faze her—nor does the death of her mentally ill mother (Édith Scob) unsettle her. It’s not that she’s cold, only practical, knowing exactly where to seek refuge.
Things to Come is a film about the ways in which the intellectual pursuit might be a woman’s only guarantor against misery, against a complete dependency on others who are sure to abandon them sooner or later. The film’s sensibility decidedly echoes a whole tradition of feminine writing (Camille Laurens, Annie Ernaux, Catherine Millet) concerned with women becoming conscious of their complete lack of social worth and making due with their literary abilities and language. Except here the woman refuses to wallow in her pain. She’s too prepared to lose to be overcome by loss. Hansen-Løve suggests that the desire for fulfillment—of ideology through revolution, of true love through coupledom—is a cute illusion wasted on the young. And that, given women’s always premature expiration date, the examined life isn’t a luxury for them, but their only lifeline.
Berlinale runs from February 11—21.