As far as recent movies where Isabelle Huppert is isolated and callously mistreated by her family, colleagues, strangers, and a cat go, Things to Come is certainly a more enjoyable viewing experience than the miserable provocation Elle, one I’d be a lot more likely to return to. However, this muted, dryly funny rumination on the loneliness of middle age is not nearly as ambitious or as rawly vulnerable as Verhoeven’s gleeful sexual assault button-pusher, as grotesque as I found that film to be. It’s much more likely to fade into the ether than that career-revitalizing work, like so many pleasant, but disposable indie dramas of decades past. As insignificant as the film can feel in a larger pop culture impact sense, though, its pleasures are always immediately recognizable & agreeable, Huppert’s lead performance being chief among them.
According to Huppert’s protagonist, “After 40, women are meant for the trash.” Things to Come seemingly builds its entire sense of narrative conflict around that idea. Huppert begins the film as a successful academic with a rich family life and an unhinged, but caring mother. Gradually, time and social convention strips each and every one of her personal connections away from her until she is left entirely alone, with the exception of a cat she never wanted to adopt. Her kids are grown. Her publishers are looking to update or replace her textbooks with something flashier & easier to sell. Her husband’s passion for her has similarly been diverted to new pursuits. She’s essentially left alone with her mountainous stacks of academic books on Philosophy, her life’s calling, convinced that intellectual stimulation alone is all she needs to live a fulfilled life. It’s doubtful that could be possibly be true.
Oddly enough, this is the second film I’ve seen recently that addresses middle age romance complications between somewhat wealthy Philosophy academics. Where Things to Come aims for subtle humor and restrained drama, Rebecca Miller’s film Maggie’s Plan goes loud & broad, echoing the traditionalist comedic beats of Old Hollywood screwball humor. Julianne Moore’s performance in that film is a much more immediately entertaining version of what Huppert pulls off here, although it’s arguably more caricature than Huppert’s character study. Things to Come certainly has its own moments of blatant punchline and situational humor. It’s just a much more subdued, melancholy look at the isolation and abandonment even the most successful, beautiful women to tend to suffer at middle age. As an audience with no particular affinity for subtlety in my pop culture entertainment, I much preferred the simple pleasures of Maggie’s Plan, but I could easily see others feeling differently on that point.
I’m possibly doing a disservice to Things to Come by comparing directly to other works like Elle or Maggie’s Plan, which only bear a passing resemblance to the film, but the truth is that it doesn’t do an especially great job of a distinguishing itself from the indie drama gestalt, leaving little room to discuss it on its own terms. Besides Huppert’s undeniable magnetism, the most distinctive aspects of the film are its broadcasting of philosophical readings and its attention to images of pure Nature: trees, water, mountains, flowers, a dead mouse. If I weren’t eternally bored by Philosophy as a subject or if the Nature photography had taken more of starring role in shaping the film’s narrative & tone, I might have been a lot more willing to allow Things to Come to sweep me off my feet. The film doesn’t seem all that interested in eliciting that reaction, though, and what’s left onscreen is mostly a melancholy character study about a woman whose age had relegated her “meant for the trash.” Huppert finds a worthwhile performance in that exercise, but not a particularly memorable one.