‘Things to Come’ draws an involving sketch of life at a crossroads

Isabelle Huppert and Roman Kolinka in ‘Things to Come’
Isabelle Huppert and Roman Kolinka in ‘Things to Come’ Sundance Selects

In Things to Come, Isabelle Huppert plays a chic, sophisticated Frenchwoman who must re-examine her life and identity when she is confronted with pivotal setbacks. It is a story that could be played for flustered comedy or hysterically pitched melodrama, but in Huppert’s cool hands, it becomes an unlikely parable of liberation and renewed self-worth.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that same synopsis could apply to Elle, the edgy, finely tuned Paul Verhoeven movie in which Huppert also stars this season. The two films are uncannily similar — right down to the cats that serve as droll narrative devices as well as Huppert’s controlled, sylphlike persona that manages to imbue every scene she is in with fragility and a fierce refusal to go down without a fight.

Although Elle has gotten lots of attention for its rape-driven plot, Things to Come in many ways is the more honest, confrontational film, if only because it does not resort to shock value and transgressive sexuality to hook the audience.

It succeeds on the merits, which in this case have to do with the wisdom, welcome or not, that accrues for women as they move through time and confront the everyday losses, laughs and little triumphs of growth and change.

With her fantastic head of Titian hair and physique of a 14-year-old gymnast, the 63-year-old Huppert might be a slightly idealized version of the typical aging woman. But she is still utterly convincing as Nathalie, a philosophy professor who, as Things to Come opens, seems to be living an ideal life with her husband, Heinz (played by André Marcon), in their sunny, book-filled apartment outside Paris.

But nothing gold can stay: When Heinz announces that he is leaving, a cascade of changes ensues, with Nathalie now forced to reassess her relationships, not just with her soon-to-be ex-husband but also with her drama queen of a mother (played with signature flair by the great Edith Scob), her grown daughter (Sarah Le Picard), her book publishers and even her students, who have been so conditioned to see relativity in everything that they even question whether time can be wrong in establishing universally accepted truths.

From its nods to the Frankfurt School to Nathalie’s interrogations of how conviction and belief supersede objective truth, Things to Come is that rare film that presents intellectual life, not as an elitist cliche or pretentious joke but as a sustaining and valid part of human existence.

It is also startlingly of this moment, steeped in the same questions animating European and U.S. political culture. Nathalie is navigating a personal and civic world that has become untethered from familiar, reassuring certainties. Arguing with her publisher’s young marketing team over the jacket of a new edition of her book, she complains that their scheme “looks like an ad for M&M’S,” an absurdity echoed by a visit to her mother, a hypochondriacal former actress who now plays cadavers on Law & Order-type television shows.

When Nathalie encounters a handsome former student named Fabien (Roman Kolinka), what begins as an intellectually engaged exchange of books and heady theoretical debates seems as though it might head somewhere more carnal. But writer-director Mia Hansen-Love never sends Things to Come in the expected direction, instead allowing Nathalie the pleasures of the life of the mind while she comes to terms with a body that, if older, is finally hers and hers only.

Things change drastically, sometimes grievously, for Nathalie in Things to Come, which acknowledges its heroine’s doubt and confusion as well as her courage and emerging softness. Suffused with wry humor, vulnerability and radiant warmth, Huppert’s performance captures that delicate period in life during which resignation morphs into graceful, even grateful, acceptance.

In French with English subtitles

Exclusive: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Things to Come

(out of five)

Director: Mia Hansen-Love

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Andre Marcon, Roman Kolinka

Rated: PG-13 (strong language, drug use)

Running time: 102 min.