Things to Come [L’avenir]

(France/Germany 2016)

“My life isn’t over. Deep down, I was prepared. I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually.”

—Nathalie

A line from Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime” is apt to describe the root of the dramatic tension in Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film: “Well, how did I get here?” Things to Come is a character study of Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy professor at an unnamed Paris university, as she navigates and reinvents her place in the world after her bourgeois examined life suddenly transforms into something else and leaves her floundering in the process.

Nathalie’s passion for her work is clear beyond her career: her husband of 25 years, Heinz (André Marcon), is also a philosophy professor; the textbook she wrote is something of a standard; and her apartment is crammed with books. Even her everyday conversation is peppered with references to philosophers, some I know and other I have never heard of. Her two adult children can follow her when she goes on about, oh, say, Plato, as she sets the table. She seems like someone who has always relied on intellect and reason.

The protesters blocking access to campus early in the film hint to something amiss; Nathalie participated in her share of protests back in the day, but this is different. Selfish, perhaps? One day, Heinz announces that he’s leaving her for another woman. “I thought you would love me forever,” Nathalie responds in a way that reads more like examining a problem than expressing surprise or hurt. Soon, her needy mother (Edith Scob) takes a turn for the worst, leaving Nathalie to figure out what to do with the cat. Meanwhile, her publisher informs her that her textbook’s future is uncertain. Then there’s the matter of her reunion with a former student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a cute and promising writer living in an anarchists’ commune.

Things to Come is very much about change, both in circumstances and relationships. Hansen-Løve takes a decidedly distant approach, letting us watch things unfold from afar. She’s not detached; she just seems more interested in showing the small events that shape Nathalie’s journey and letting us figure out the big picture. It works really well. Choosing “Unchained Melody” for the background in the final scene is especially clever; it’s clear about where Nathalie is on an emotional level, yet it’s open to interpretation about whether the future holds good things for her. It’s a happy, hopeful ending if you want it to be.

With Sarah Le Picard, Solal Forte, Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, Rachel Arditi, Yves Heck

Production: Arte France Cinéma, CG Cinéma, Detail Film, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma

Distribution: Les Films du Losange, Palace Films

102 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.thingstocomefilm.com

Elle

(France 2016)

Director Paul Verhoeven’s Elle doesn’t sound like a comedy: the central event of the film is a rape—a bloody, violent one at that. In fact, it’s the very first scene. Strangely, the opening credits warn us that what we are seeing is “a French comedy.” Really? I guess that explains it!

Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her dining room by a man in a ski mask while her green-eyed cat watches, detached and seemingly bored. China is smashed, furniture is toppled, blood is shed. After he leaves, Michèle cleans up the mess and resumes her life, ordering sushi delivery—a “holiday roll,” no less.

As the film proceeds, we learn a lot about Michèle. She’s the daughter of a famous mass murderer approaching parole. She’s a ballbusting owner of a video game company. Her staff, entirely young and male, either wants to sleep with her or murder her. Her son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is totally whipped by a shrew (Alice Isaaz) who’s pregnant with a baby that clearly isn’t his. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is involved with a younger yoga instructor (Vimala Pons). Her mother (Judith Magre) is a high maintenance piece of work who carries on with men a third her age. Meanwhile, Michèle is having an affair with with Robert (Christian Berkel), the husband of her business partner (Anne Consigny).

Things get dicey when Michèle develops a thing for her neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a handsome banker married to a devout Catholic (Virginie Efira) who apparently won’t fuck him. Their flirtation messes with her head as she tries to figure out who raped her. She’s surrounded by men, and every one of them is suspect.

David Birke’s screen adaption of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… is, in a word, warped. Elle plays with power, desire, sex, and of all things sympathy. Consistent with its character—a constant switcheroo you don’t know whether to trust or look away from—it’s not a sad affair. To the contrary, it’s daring, thrilling, irreverent, and totally fun. It shouldn’t work—I found myself questioning whether I should enjoy the film as much as I did—but it does. The execution of both the plot and the characters is clever—and Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, which nicely illustrates the psychological drama here, is flawless. If nothing else, Elle is a visually stunning film.

Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” plays at various points in Elle, suggesting a lot of contradictory things. I took it as ironic more than anything. Elle is not for everyone, but it’s a powerful statement for those who can handle it—the perfect film for Valentine’s Day.

With Lucas Prisor, Raphaël Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Hugo Conzelmann

Production: SBS Productions, Pallas Film, France 2 Cinéma, Entre Chien et Loup, Canal+, France Télévisions, Orange Cinéma Séries, Casa Kafka Pictures, Proximus, Centre National de la Cinématographie, Filmförderungsanstalt

Distribution: SBS Distribution

130 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

http://sonyclassics.com/elle/