If this remarkable film about the sudden and complete collapse of habits in the life of a French philosophy teacher is the best film I have seen this year, it also at times risks falling on its sword as a consequence of its audacity. Isabelle Huppert, in surely the year’s most brilliant performance, is such an all-expressive presence, her influence on the film’s budding reputation could almost count as a negative; this is not a movie that should be, as has happened in almost every trade review I have read, filed away as a particularly intellectual exercise in Huppertology. ‘Things to Come’ is several films at once: a strange and convincing portrait of the quotidian life of an intellectual, a fetish-object for Huppertians (I do not discount myself), a compelling experiment (as the director drafts a kind of diffuse non-style onto a huge emotional canvas), a brisk but knotty comedy of manners, and a sly rebuttal – and reversal – of the conventions of the contemporary French quality drama. While its surface suggests something close to the traditions it ultimately sends up, and which the presence of Huppert, unquestionably France’s finest working actor, at first appears to affirm, a closer look at its complex inner workings reveals something quite different.
In her recent work, director Mia Hansen-Løve has pulled too close to the conventions of French fictional drama that her earliest films seemed to at first court and then summarily flout. For those of us for whom such films as ‘All is Forgiven’ and ‘Father of My Children’ represented the emergence of France’s most lucid and intelligent young director, her 2012 romance ‘Goodbye First Love’ seemed like something of a pleasant disappointment, a perfectly-judged failure (I was so underwhelmed by it that I didn’t have to courage to buy a ticket for her even more acclaimed ‘Eden’, which received a relatively wide release here in the United Kingdom last year). It was as if in ‘Goodbye First Love’ this astute, poetic manipulator of conventional forms had instead surrendered to, rather than exacerbated and accentuated, her obvious ability to render them naturalistically and poetically. For a director as great as Hansen-Løve, capable of the greatest reversals of tone since Jean Renoir, that was not enough. This latest film, which took the Silver Bear at Berlin earlier in the year but seems to have been all but forgotten in the interim, I am only too happy to report, is a return to the form she invented in her first two films.
The story is at first glance a low-key drama about an unusually rough period in the life of Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosopher of some acclaim who teaches at a school in Paris. Hansen-Løve’s proclivity for jarring leaps forward in time is registered at the outset: we open on an episode from her past, as she takes a happy stroll with her husband Heinz (André Marcon) along the French coast. Then a title card propels us “Some years later,” to the onset of her impending social obsolescence. The bulk of the story takes place in this time period, as Nathalie soberly draws on the reserves of strength she has accumulated over years of contemplation and restraint to deal with the barrage of crises now facing her. In an early scene, Nathalie fights her way through a student protest at the university, only to dismiss it to her faithful students in the classroom as meek and ill-advised. We are undoubtedly geared to perceive her reaction to the protest as both reductive and defensive: she has sublimated the passions of her radical youth for the comforts of a space in which she can refine her thoughts and impart them to her students. Hansen-Løve positions her as implicitly against radicality, a position that will later sting as she is mocked later in the film. Amid another existential crisis, her protégé capriciously reprimands her for becoming a thinker too deeply embedded in her own comfortable lifestyle.
A lesser director would put her chips on either side of the table; Hansen-Løve instead sustains the two contradicting lines of thought as essential components of the drama. The disconnect between Nathalie’s outlook and the way we are forced to perceive her behaviour is perhaps the single richest aspect of the film: again and again, our attempts to reconcile her outward behaviour – faced by situation after situation that seems to erode whatever tools she has for making sense of them – with the obviously credible and intricate philosophical structures she has constructed and refined over a lifetime are frustrated by the ever-widening chasm that separates them. Hansen-Løve, again, for me, one of the great poets of contradiction, is able to express several ideas and emotions at once, showing the limitations, both emotional and intellectual, of doubling down on a single philosophical viewpoint.
Things To Come is out November 7 on Blu-Ray and DVD
 The uncanny parallels between Huppert’s performance in Things to Come and her turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle are also notable. Both women live alone in Paris (and both Elle and Things to Come are great films about living alone); both women are defiant in the face of baked-in prejudice in their professional life, or what they see as imprecision and idiocy on the part of others; both have a tortured relationship with an elderly mother who flouts social convention freely and whose death ultimately represents for both a freedom to express their every mysterious inner feeling openly. And both films move along parallel tracks: each takes as a starting point the foundation of genre conventions – in this case of the contemporary French qualité production – and turns them on their head. But where Verhoeven viciously parodies the conventions of his particular genre – the strange intersection of Euro-thriller and coolly calculating French arthouse sex drama (a la The Piano Teacher) – by exploding their buried tensions and euphemised undercurrents, as well as shooting them with the gloss of one of his Hollywood epics, Hansen-Løve merely subverts them at every turn, widening the gap between what we expect to happen based on the way situations are set up and what our protagonist actually does.