OK, now Isabelle Huppert is just showing off.
Her performance in “Things to Come,” Mia Hansen-Love’s film about a woman undergoing great change in her life, is terrific; listen for her name when they read the Academy Awards nominations on Tuesday.
But coming on the heels of “Elle,” in which she plays a rape victim who refuses to surrender power to her attacker — a completely different kind of performance in a completely different kind of movie?
“Elle” is a more morally complex film and worth seeing, but the task here is to discuss “What Comes Next,” and why it’s also worth seeing.
Again: Huppert. That’s the long and short of it. But Hansen-Love, who also wrote the film, strikes the perfect tone in both story and visual representation. This is a film about a philosophy professor. It’s a film about giving a child junior books of philosophy for a first-birthday present and a film in which one character can’t be happy until a lost copy of Schopenhauer can be found.
Yet the only things pretentious about it are the manner and conversation of a few characters, and pretension is used as a tool of mild ridicule. The smartest people don’t show off their intelligence. They simply incorporate it into their lives. That’s what Hansen-Love does with the intelligence of the movie. There’s no overdoing anything, and Huppert is perfect at portraying someone confident in her knowledge and instincts.
She plays Nathalie, a philosophy teacher. She’s married to Heinz (Andre Marcon), who also teaches philosophy. They seem happy, as are their children.
But there’s trouble under the surface.
In short order: Heinz leaves Nathalie for another woman, Nathalie’s frail mother dies, and her work situation changes (philosophy isn’t a cash-cow at schools). Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student for whom she has been a mentor, invites her to the commune-like farm he’s helped start with fellow would-be anarchists; his beliefs are beginning to diverge from what she thinks she taught him.
The movie turns on how Nathalie reacts to these developments, and this is where Huppert shines. Histrionics could be forgiven as a reaction to any of them, but that’s not Nathalie’s style (nor Huppert’s, nor Hansen-Love’s). While it’s not the most important or moving moment in the movie, one of the most excruciating is Nathalie’s meeting with her publishing company for updates on one of her books. The young experts want to sex things up with colorful displays and such. How does it look, they ask?
It looks absurd, Nathalie knows, and she tells them so (“horrible beyond belief” is the actual description). It’s a telling moment for anyone who has worked in a changing medium. What we expect to follow is complaining, bellyaching, a soliloquy on how the old ways are the best ways and the flavor-of-the-month mentality is short-sighted and ultimately futile.
That doesn’t happen. Instead Nathalie speaks her piece, stands up, says goodbye and moves on with her life. Who knew the high road could be so satisfying?
Nathalie is, in her own words, free for the first time in her life. But it’s as scary as it is exhilarating. Again, Huppert captures this, and does so effortlessly. She’s remarkable. So, too, is “Things to Come.”
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
???? presents a film directed by ??? and written by ????. Rated PG-13 (for brief language and drug use). In French with English subtitles. Running time: ??? minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.