At the 2016 New York Film Festival press screening of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, the director described her attraction to stories about characters in motion. This is certainly evident in the character of Nathalie, played with astounding grace and charisma by Isabelle Huppert. Throughout the film, Nathalie seems to be dragged across the screen, pulled in a thousand different directions by various obligations, family members and emergencies: whether she is rushing down a grassy hill in the middle of the philosophy class she is teaching (to tend to her ailing mother Yvette), or walking barefoot through the muddy sand at a vacation house (in search of a cell phone connection), Nathalie is constantly on the move. Despite the relative expanse of her life and opportunities, she seems restless in her inability to sit still, using her travels and motion as a way to look for something beyond what she knows.
Things to Come shows Nathalie’s underlying uneasiness within her comfortable life. The idyllic scenes of Nathalie and her family eating strawberries for lunch while lightheartedly discussing communism and philosophy, or walking in the park with her beloved former student Fabien, are punctuated with shots of Nathalie alone in bed at night, crying into her sheets. These moments of breakdown are not cast as some sort of dark underbelly of Nathalie’s picture perfect life, rather as simply another facet of it. Happiness and contentment exist for Nathalie, but so does the occasional breakdown.
Though Things to Come adopts a largely restrained tone, where characters treat even dramatic moments like admissions to infidelity with a hand wave rather than large outbursts, there is an anxious kinetic energy underneath, bubbling against the calm exterior. Nathalie has come to a turning point in her life: newly separated from her husband, her children grown and no longer having to take care of her mother, she has been freed of many obligations that had previously pulled her this way and that in the beginning of the film. She tells Fabien that this is the freest she’s ever been.
But how free is she truly? Despite her opportunity for change, Nathalie still remains wrapped up in the practical bits and pieces of her old commitments. She might be freed of her marital ties, but she still must return to her (soon to be ex) husband’s holiday house to pack up her things; her mother might be in a nursing home, but Nathalie must still take care of Yvette’s cat (despite being allergic), and Yvette’s persistent calls for her daughter’s help continue. “Freedom” for Nathalie comes with many more strings attached than it would seem at first glance.
Fabien criticizes Nathalie’s continued entanglements with her old life, despite her claims to pursue freedom. He accuses of her of being too enamoured with the materialistic pleasures of a bourgeois lifestyle while purporting to want a more carefree existence. Things to Come offers a subtle response to Fabien’s remarks, as well as Nathalie’s hope for total freedom: social expectations have a way of influencing everyone, even those who are hoping desperately to escape them. Nathalie, in particular, feels the additional confinement of the gender roles she has a pressure to fulfill, which Fabien does not account for in his analysis of her behavior.
Granted, even Nathalie, as a self described bourgeois woman, does have a financial freedom that women of less means do not have. She can afford go off to an anarchist commune for the weekend and put her mother in a nursing home to be cared for, but Nathalie still shows signs of being trapped into a confining narrative of womanhood. The guilt of putting her mother under the supervision of others rather than caring for Yvette herself weighs on Nathalie as an inability to properly perform her daughterly duties. As a middle aged woman surrounded by mostly younger men, she feels an added burden of feeling out of place at the commune that Fabien does not share.
And she still must deal with the expectation that single women should be in search of a romantic relationship. Fabien asks if she’s interested in dating again, to which Nathalie responds that she’s satisfied with being “fulfilled intellectually” and not interested in dedicating too much time to romance. However, the very experience of being asked about potential suitors demonstrates how Nathalie must consistently confront how her life has failed to live up to traditional ideas of femininity, and puts her in a position of having to defend her decision to not pursue that narrative. Although theoretically Fabien expresses the desire for Nathalie to live outside of social norms, he also perpetuates the standard expectation that single people would be on the lookout for a romantic partner. He even admits later in the film that his life of living on a secluded farm and spending his time writing radical philosophical essays would be much more difficult if he had a wife and child to care for — yet he still seems unsympathetic to Nathalie’s attempts to navigate her newly found freedom while maintaining ties to her old family life.
Nathalie’s internal negotiation of her personal desires, external societal demands and the wishes of her friends and family manifests themselves in the film through her physical movements across the screen, trying to appease these sometimes contradictory obligations. She is a woman in limbo: between freedom and constraint, youth and old age, loneliness and acceptance, conventionality and radicality. Hansen-Løve does not show these facets of her identity to be in conflict. Rather, they are concepts that exist in complex ways within Nathalie’s life. Things to Come offers no answers. There is no right way to negotiate these expectations, and no way to outrun them: they simply exist as a part of life. And Nathalie faces them, sometimes effectively, sometimes poorly, and looks onward for the next things to come.
Emma Casley is a Brooklyn-based film writer. She recently participated in the New York Film Festival’s Critics Academy and currently interns at the Metrograph. She can be found wandering the streets for good coffee and also on Twitter @EmmaLCasley.