In Things to Come (2016), Natalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is working in Paris as a French philosophy teacher when her quiet life suddenly crumbles. After twenty years of marriage, her husband leaves her for another woman. Her mother dies. Her long-time publishing house no longer wants to distribute her work. Though she stoically traverses her troubles, it is clear that Natalie’s lifelong dedication to philosophy has given her no easy answers in terms of recreating a sense of meaning for herself.
Fittingly, Mia Hansen-Løve’s film opens onto the seaside grave of French writer François-René Chateaubriand, who wrote, “Man has not one and the same life, but many lives, placed end to end. That is the cause of his misery.” This first sequence, in which Natalie is on her annual family vacation in Brittany visiting the author’s tomb, cues us that a chapter of her life is coming to a close. “I’ll catch up with you later,” her husband Heinz (André Marcon) tells her, as he lingers at the burial site. It is implied (we realize in retrospect) that he has already begun seeing the other woman.
As the film jumps ahead three years to when Natalie finds out, we see her trapped in the truth of Chateaubriand’s observation. Her reaction, however, resists the writer’s melancholic absorption. Though stunned, she quickly puts a vice on her emotions: “Me, who thought you’d love me forever. What a fool I was.” When Heinz leaves a bouquet of roses on the table as a guilty parting gesture, she masters her fury, removes it from the vase, and throws it matter-of- factly in the trash. As in Elle (2016), Huppert refuses the role of victim, even when her circumstances warrant it. Though a far cry from the cold aggressive Michèle, Natalie evokes the same mixture of detachment and sympathy. There are moments when we glimpse a petrified vulnerability beneath her stoniness.
It is Natalie’s relationship with her former protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), which has a defining impact on her as she navigates her mid-life crisis. Unexpectedly, he comes to the high school to thank her for inspiring him to pursue philosophy. Now a committed anarchist, Fabien has abandoned his life in Paris and is living in a community in the mountains around Grenoble. Twice, Natalie visits him, and though these trips furnish a certain sanctuary amidst her personal turmoil, she comes to see just how much she has outgrown the idealism and uncompromising mindset of her youth.
When Fabien bluntly assesses that Natalie is a dishonest radical (unwilling to renounce her bourgeois lifestyle and bring her actions into line with her beliefs), she is hardly wounded by the remark. “My goal is much more modest than yours,” she replies. “It is to help students think for themselves.” At this stage in her life, Natalie is more intrigued by the enduring complexities of Rousseau than by blatant firebrand radicals like Slavoj Žižek (whose work she skeptically eyes on Fabien’s shelf.)
Things to Come is peppered throughout with references to philosophers, both known and obscure, that parallel the drama in subtle ways. Natalie’s mention of Jewish existentialist Martin Buber is particularly key as it relates to her friendship with Fabien. Interested in the spiritual nature of human connections, Buber wrote in his seminal work I and Thou that when a person “enters completely into a relationship with another human, without masks and without pretenses, this bond results in true dialogue and leaves both people significantly transformed.” Such is the case with Natalie, as her conversations with Fabien bring her into touch with a distinctly middle-age wisdom that beginning anew does not mean severing ties with the past, but writing new chapters amidst its countless traces. Unlike Fabien, able to abandon Paris to dedicate himself to anarchist principles, Natalie is firmly bound by the life she has built in Paris. She has obligations – to her students, to her kids, to her mother’s cat Pandora (whose name, not incidentally it seems, evokes the notion of a Pandora’s box as a metaphor for the unforeseen complications that spring out of Natalie’s outwardly innocuous life.)
The central wisdom of Hansen-Løve’s film resides in the title. Though much of Natalie’s life is already behind her, there will always be the half-anxious, half-hopeful openness of things to come, as she bridges the gap between the past chapters and the unfolding ones. At the end of any philosophical debate, only time will emerge triumphant – the only truth uniting all human experience. “Past and Present are two incomplete statues,” wrote Chateaubriand, “the one has been dug up from the earth, in a mutilated condition, and the other stands unfinished, and can only be completed by the Future.”