“Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” said Chuck Dederich, the founder of the rehab cult Synanon, whose followers in the 1970s shaved their heads and lived in a totalitarian Southern California commune, beating each other and stockpiling guns. It’s funny how a bromide can have such sinister origins, or for that matter, how something so insincere can be shaped into an insight by the right hands. In fact, the very gifted French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye First Love, Eden) has made it the cornerstone of her terrifically succinct style. She makes movies about how lives change course through happenstance and how we redefine ourselves without noticing.
Her new film, which bears the apt English title Things To Come, depicts a year or so in the life of one Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), as the things she has taken for granted disappear or change, beginning with her marriage to Heinz (André Marcon), her husband of 25 years, with whom she’s raised two grown children. Nathalie and Heinz both teach philosophy, and perhaps a different filmmaker might highlight the irony of a person who’s devoted her life to the discussion of meaning struggling to find her own. But Hansen-Løve downplays it. As a storyteller, she’s always placed special emphasis on lengths of time; nothing in her films happens conveniently.
There is no “Eureka!” moment. If there were, it would be a betrayal of the intelligence and self-possession of Nathalie’s character. One can place Hansen-Løve’s films within a tradition of sporadic and inconvenient character-centric narratives, which can create a vivid sense of life by sidestepping causality; her movies phase and accumulate instead of moving in straight lines. We see Nathalie with her students and alumni; with her needy mother, Yvette (Edith Scob); with the publishers of the textbook series she edits. There are detours—say, Nathalie going off to stay in a former student’s anarchist country retreat, bringing along her mother’s obese cat in a carrier—and moments of inspiration.
“Do women my age leave their husbands?” says Nathalie in a moment that winks at Hansen-Løve’s predilection for looking for the seemingly undramatic. “In movies, maybe.” In another sequence, she makes a cheeky reference to her star’s status as an iconic French actress by having Nathalie go to a Juliette Binoche movie. (It’s Certified Copy, no less.) But in keeping with Hansen-Løve’s overall ethos, even this in-joke perfectly fits the character. Her films are guided by an eye for the perfect detail, from the densely packed shelves of the Chazeaux family’s Paris apartment to Nathalie’s reuse of an IKEA bag to take out the trash.
Things To Come is a less ambitious work than the decades-spanning Eden or Father Of My Children, which swung on a seemingly out-of-nowhere narrative turn. Nathalie is the oldest protagonist Hansen-Løve has ever had, and her story—if Hansen-Løve’s arcs can be called that—is that of a lifelong process of adaptation. (Another well-worn truism applies: “Live and learn.”) But if Things To Come doesn’t completely fulfill Hansen-Løve’s career mission of elevating minor incidents to major themes, it still rings with her clarity and personality. She conveys in single sentences what less confident filmmakers might expound on in a monologue, and makes small gestures more poignant by tossing them off casually or making an unexpected cut.