Things to Come is about making things that are exceedingly difficult look effortless. That's true of its story, but it's also true of the extraordinary work being done the two women most responsible for the film's considerable impact: writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, winner of the Best Director award at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, and Isabelle Huppert, whose presence in a film's cast has been a pretty reliable proof that the project is going to be damned interesting, if not always necessarily "good", for decades now, but for whom 2016 has proven to be a particularly striking banner year. These two - alongside lots of people, of course, film is a great collaborative art and there is much about that art to love in Things to Come, but really it's mostly those two - are up to some of the subtlest work I saw in any 2016 film, the kind that it's terribly to easy to overlook without fully appreciating how ingenious it is.

In this particular case, the ingenuity comes in the form of the film's casually elliptical portrayal of time and emotion. Things to Come sketches out several months in the life of Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert), a philosophy professor in Paris who has a pretty crappy year ahead of her: over the course of 102 trim minutes, Nathalie's husband Heinz (André Marcon) leaves her (awkwardly and inconclusively) for his younger mistress; her mother Yvette (Edith Scob) grows so helpless with dementia that she needs to be moved into a nursing home, leaving the allergic Nathalie to take care of the fat, grumpy cat Pandora; her former student Fabien (Roman Kolinka), now a political activist, tries to adopt her, first as a lover, then as a mentor for his cell of radical academics, despite her active disinterest in either; and the publishers of the textbook she wrote decide that they're not going to put out a new edition. There are other, more minor inconveniences, some of which are much bigger problems than the problems themselves: Heinz leaving proves to be much less of a crisis than Heinz's insistence on nonetheless still buying huge floral arrangements for his soon-to-be-ex-wife, which she is then obliged to dispose of. Turns out that when you're as gifted a screen actor as Huppert, it is possible to make the act of trying to stuff flowers into a trash can that's too small into a performance beat of the most evocative emotional resonance and psychological acuity.

But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. So Nathalie has an extremely busy, unpleasant year, and Things to Come isn't even one and three-quarter hours long. That means plenty of compression takes place, of course, but it's how that compression occurs that makes the movie such a tiny piece of sublimity. The film plays as the "greatest hits" version of the year, almost, but with a significant twist in that it only shows us portions of the events that plague Nathalie. We very rarely stay to watch the big emotional moments that decades of movies train us to expect: the sense of betrayal that her book has been cancelled, the gnawing ambivalence about Fabien's artless flirtation, the weeping realisation that her mother is dying. All of that is cut away, sometimes with some very blunt ends to scenes that skip ahead before we even really had a sense of where they were going. Only a handful of times in the movie is the jump between times smoothed out with any kind of audio bridge or enough continuity of action to clarify how in time these events are related. Mostly, it's instead a series of fragments of time assembled in chronological order and without any other clearer sense that they're linked as part of a causal chain.

In short, the film has been assembled as a series of ellipses that constantly deny us the expected melodramatic payoff to all of the grand events of the film. Huppert's performance is shaped in almost exactly the same way: we're watching a woman constantly not emoting, or to be more precise, a woman not showing off the emotions she's feeling. It's really quite a beautiful thing: the narrative structure is character, since the refusal to show us any big emotional events but instead focus on limited scenes of Nathalie just grinding through and getting daily life handled is very much in keeping with how she chooses to exist in the world, pragmatic and intelligent and without any indulgence in drama. And, too, the structure subjectively aligns us with Nathalie: since nothing ever really feels like it resolves, but scenes just keep piling up without a neat road map saying "interpret thus", we get a sense of the same "one damn thing after another" exhaustion that she has to keep enduring with no end in sight. It's quite a nifty achievement, putting us securely inside Nathalie's POV while also letting us marvel that she keeps finding the psychological resources to deal with everything, even as Huppert silently allows us to see what a drain on the character everything is.

All of this results in one of the year's best pure character studies, untainted by melodrama (nothing seems truly bad, just goddamn irritating - even the saddest development in the whole movie is undercut by Huppert's perfect laugh of embarrassed surprise at the fact that life won't slow down even for her to be unhappy in peace), limned with just enough sardonic humor that it's genuinely enjoyable despite being so austere and intellectually French. There are other pleasures beyond Huppert's marvelous performance: Denis Lenoir's cinematography, for example, is just about perfect in its subdued way, using focus and framing to always keep the film anchored on Nathalie while also acknowledging that it's a big world full of lots of other people with lives and problems of their own; it's a visually full film without seeming busy or overstuffed, and one that can acknowledge the beauty of the French countryside and the city of Paris without giving into visual sentiment. It also has some faultlessly-designed interiors, thanks to production designer Anna Falguères, who perfectly sums up the way that an accomplished scholarly genius turns the space around them into a place celebrating their scholarship, rather than their personality. Basically everything in the movie works as part of a complete whole, bending our attention to one very interesting woman overcoming a set of challenges in a way that's far more rewarding for not yielding to drama. It's not remotely flashy or even necessarily "ambitious", but it's pretty close to the ideal version of itself.