Following hot on the heels of her masterful work in "Elle," Isabelle Huppert delivers her second extraordinary performance of the year in "Things to Come," playing a woman at a point of personal crisis. Huppert is Nathalie, a 60-ish professor of philosophy whose comfortable existence begins to unravel in small but collectively significant ways. Her neurotic, hypochondriac mother (Édith Scob) retreats further into illness, requiring a transition into assisted living. This is followed shortly by news from her publisher that they'll be dropping her textbook series in order to move in a more "modern" direction. Then after 25 years together, Nathalie's husband (André Marcon) announces that he's leaving her for another woman.
That description sounds like a recipe for melodrama and rah-rah affirmations of empowerment, but the story never becomes quite so dramatic. In the hands of writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, this potentially trite story about getting one's groove back doesn't follow any of the paths you might anticipate, and defies those expectations in thoughtful and surprising ways.
Ensconced in her life of academia for so long, Nathalie finds these setbacks rather liberating. Instead of sending her into a tailspin, the steady stream of blows offer a chance to right her course and embrace the types of change she's spent so long resisting. Often, part of growing older means shedding extraneous aspects of life; we're still ourselves, but in a more concentrated, streamlined form.
Nathalie spends more time with her handsome former student and protégé, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who's grown more radicalized over the years. She visits him at the countryside farmhouse he shares with his fellow anarchists, and spending time with Fabien and his cohorts allows her to recognize that her radical days are behind her -- and more importantly that she's fine with that.
As with "Elle," Huppert plays a woman dealing with some rather traumatic life experiences (also like "Elle," she shares much of her screen time with a feline costar), and the actor gives a performance that's every bit the equal to her work in that film. But where a certain chilliness defined that previous role, here Huppert is vital and vibrant. Nathalie strives to let the indignities roll off her back, and we see the stings they leave behind. But for all the vulnerability she displays, Huppert lets her strength shine through, assuring us that Nathalie is a woman who will make it through no matter what life throws her way. It's a remarkable performance from an actress who just keeps getting better with each passing year.