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'Things to Come' Review: Isabelle Huppert Lends Midas Touch to Mid-Life Crisis

French screen legend scores another bullseye with this delicate tale of philosophy professor starting over

Peter Travers on why 'Things to Come' proves that French screen legend Isabelle Huppert may be our greatest living actress. Credit: L. Bergery

Isabelle Huppert is stirring Oscar talk (and she damn well should) for the potent provocation of her acting in Elle, directed by Dutch wildman Paul Verhoeven. But to see her in Things to Come, as a character who is the polar opposite of the powerhouse she plays in that story of rape and revenge, is to cement Huppert's reputation as one of the best actresses on the planet. Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love (Eden), the film gives the legendary French star the role of Nathalie, a Paris philosophy professor whose academic husband, Heinz (the excellent André Marcon), has decided to explore greener and younger pastures after 25 years of marriage. Nathalie didn't see his rejection coming. Still, she's determined to rally and not descend into cliché. "I'm lucky to be fulfilled intellectually," she says. And she is.

But there is still an emptiness and a series of stings that come from every corner. "I thought you'd love me forever," she tells Heinz. Huppert reads the line with less recrimination than aching tenderness. Don't mistake Nathalie's vulnerability, however, for weakness. This is a woman who pushes past student protest lines ("You can't stop me from working," she declares, miffed), quotes Rousseau to her students ( "Woe to him who has nothing to desire! He loses everything he owns") and does not gently accept the rejection of her textbook series by young editors who want to simplify and modernize it. Hansen-Love, the daughter of two philosophy profs, makes Nathalie one with what she teaches. But life is too messy for a syllabus, as Nathalie copes with her grown children, her senile mother (Eyes Without a Face's Edith Scob), and her teasingly romantic relationship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student who lives in the mountains with his anarchist friends. The boy is not for Nathalie, and neither is Pandora, her mother's cat who makes her allergic. But Nathalie forges a truce with both of them while she considers the future as a woman of heart and mind.

Huppert's brilliance is indisputable, her performance alternately playful and deeply moving. Things to Come is the only the fifth feature from Hansen-Love, following All is Forgiven, The Father of My Children, Goodbye First Love and Eden, but the maturity of her thinking and the depth of her feeling is breathtaking. She has developed a personal style that is bracingly unique, and thanks to truly inspired partnership with Huppert, the 35-year-old filmmaker has delivered her best film yet.