Midway through “Things to Come,” Isabelle Huppert’s protagonist has a disconcerting encounter in a cinema, distracting her from Juliette Binoche’s own on-screen emotional uncertainty in Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 jewel, “Certified Copy.” It’s a cheeky move to so fleetingly cameo that level of perfection in one’s own work, but Mia Hansen-Love’s fifth — and possibly best — feature pulls it off with warmth and grace to spare. At once disarmingly simple in form and riddled with rivulets of complex feeling, this story of a middle-aged Parisienne philosophy professor rethinking an already much-examined life in the wake of unforeseen divorce emulates the best academics in making outwardly familiar ideas feel newly alive and immediate — and has an ideal human conduit in a wry, heartsore Huppert, further staking her claim as our greatest living actress with nary a hint of showing off. Following widespread distribution for the dazzling but younger-skewing “Eden,” the arthouse future for Hansen-Love’s latest is surely a bright one.
Among the more minor losses endured by heavily burdened philosopher Nathalie (Huppert) in the course of Hansen-Love’s gently meandering narrative is one of pedagogical authority. As her favorite student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), grows into a writer and thinker of independent, often conflicting, agency, she’s both gratified and saddened that the path on which she placed him has diverged from hers; the student has become not the master, but merely his own man.
Hansen-Love knows a thing or two about what we give and take from our teachers. Like her four previous films, “Things to Come” bears the delicate tonal imprint of her former mentor and now husband, Olivier Assayas — the wily presence of the great Edith Scob isn’t the only nod here to, in particular, Assayas’ “Summer Hours.” Yet the pic’s glinting aesthetic textures and searching philosophical preoccupations are quite plainly her own. As filmmakers, they share tastes and interests in the way lovers must do, as if they were mutually beloved songs. Hansen-Love’s sharply feminine and subtly feminist worldview, however, is marked by a guarded generational idealism and resistance to nostalgia that sets it richly apart from others in the current French canon; in “Things to Come,” her rotating sensibilities as intellectual, humanist and sensualist converge most satisfyingly.
“I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually — that’s reason enough to be happy,” Nathalie proudly states months after Heinz (Andre Marcon), a fellow academic and her husband of 25 years, calmly states that he’s leaving her for another woman. Hansen-Love’s appropriately wordy but airy screenplay both agrees and disagrees with her. Refreshingly enough, unlike most of its peers in the post-divorce recovery subgenre, the pic is not urgently concerned with securing her a second shot at romantic fulfilment, though her ongoing friendship with Fabien — “the son she’d have liked,” her own youngest child, Johann (Solal Forte), notes ruefully — suggests they may at least be platonic soulmates. (Among its numerous observational virtues, “Things to Come” has an aching understanding of the limited social circles cultivated by certain people at a certain age; there are no colorless, perfunctory best-friend figures to act here as convenient screenwriter’s sounding boards.)
Still, solitude brings Nathalie little sincere pleasure: Newfound freedom, as she forlornly notes, isn’t as exciting as it sounds when its circumstances are entirely involuntary. Under Hansen-Love’s light but taut directorial control, time passes faster than it seems to, as it does in life itself. Before Nathalie quite has a moment to take stock, her children have flown the nest, beginning lives and even families of their own; her difficult, addled prima donna of a mother (the wonderful Scob) is also taken off her hands, leaving only a vast, cranky black cat to care for.
Nathalie’s loneliness isn’t structured in the film as an arc, but as an undulating wave: She has good days and bad ones, breakthroughs and circular setbacks, moments of intoxicated serenity soundtracked to Donovan’s “Deep Peace” and others where crying on the bed, using a recalcitrant cat as Kleenex, is the only manageable option. With patience and unimpeachable tenderness, “Things to Come” covers all these stages, while maintaining a good-humored uncertainty about what the final upshot of it all may be. The film at least presents emotional limbo as a roundabout kind of hope: “So long as we desire, we can do without happiness,” Nathalie likewise lectures her students. If her teaching never sounds the phony platitudinal note common to so much in-movie academia, that’d be because Hansen-Love knows philosophy professors pretty well — she’s the daughter of two. As in “Eden,” which riffed extensively on her brother Sven’s club-DJ career, the fiction of “Things to Come” nonetheless bears the intimate conviction of experience.
Huppert is such a persistently and prolifically rigorous performer that she risks being taken for granted in some of her vehicles, but this is major, many-shaded work even by her lofty standards. If Nathalie’s brittle, discriminating nature and ready sense of pique fall naturally in the actress’s wheelhouse — no one can toss an insult like “that repulsive Stalinist” with quite Huppert’s degree of offhand venom — it’s a joy to watch her play the character’s softer, more crumpled vulnerability and gradually coaxed reserves of whimsy and affection. This is Hansen-Love’s first collaboration with a star of Huppert’s stature, and the director has chosen astutely: Her writing shares and suits the actress’s taste for quiet, unaffected clarity of expression. Witness the scene in which Heinz announces his permanent departure, a master class in writing and playing precisely as much dramatic pressure as the scene demands: “I thought you’d love me forever,” Huppert says with startled, inquiring softness. It’s a line reading as gasp-inducingly painful as any great cinematic screaming match.
Continuing what they began with “Eden,” meanwhile, Hansen-Love has also found her optimum formal collaborator in cinematographer Denis Lenoir — another inheritance from Assayas, though he frames and lights her films with a tactile fluidity eminently distinct from his work on the likes of “Cold Water” and “Late August, Early September.” Indeed, Hansen-Love’s oeuvre has acquired its own signature character of light, with sunshine streaming through even exchanges of most disconsolate darkness; conversely, only in the film’s contented, Brittany-set pre-credits prologue, set several years before the storm, do skies turn a flannelly gray. Hansen-Love’s musical selections surprise just as often with their note-perfect sympathy to the action at hand: A critical use of that old chestnut “Unchained Melody” — crooned here not by the Righteous Brothers, but by the Fleetwoods — reps a very different appropriation of another film’s glory from the Kiarostami hat tip, but the outcome could hardly be lovelier.