Though you won’t read this until the usual Sunday slot, a collision of demands and a working Sunday meant that this weeks Film 2019 had to be watch on a grey, wet, windy Saturday morning. It didn’t feel quite right.
Things to Come (L’Avenir) is a 2016 film, written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, inspired by the experiences of her mother, and written with Isabelle Huppert in mind for the central role of Nathalie Chevaux, a middle-aged Philosophy teacher whos husband of twenty-five years chooses to leave her. It’s the third of those three Huppert films that I collected as presents for myself at the end of last year, and another film I hadn’t seen before.
Frankly, if the film starred anyone other than Huppert, I doubt I would be retaining it. Though it’s not disappointing, especially not in the sequences that see Nathalie staying with her favoured student, Fabien (Roman Kalinka), on an anarchist collective farm ‘in the mountains’, which are beautiful, the film for me suffers from two major absences: the first is a story, the second emotion.
Things to Come (a misleading title, given the near-absence of forward progression) starts with the Chevaux family – Nathalie, husband Heinz (Andre Marcon) and children Chloe and Johann – on a ferry of sorts, visiting an island to stand at the tomb of the writer Chateaubriand, who appears to have greater significance for Heinz than Nathalie.
What this symbolises is beyond me: I am not familiar with Chateaubriand other than as a name (I learn from Wikipedia that he was also a prominent statesman, anti-Napoleonist, Royalist). Indeed, I am generally ignorant of philosophy, save for what scraps of it I have determined from experience, so the point sails over my head by the width of the orbit of Jupiter.
From there, we jump several years into the future. The children are grown, Nathalie and Heinz are established, settled, in all respects. Their lives are comfortable, intellectual, busy. Both teach, different disciplnes, different establishments. The strikes then current in France are of no matter to Nathalie, who refuses to acknowledge pickets and politics, insisting on her right to teach, and her students’ right to learn.
The main cloud on their horizon is Nathalie’s mother, Yvette (Edith Scob), hypochondriac, neurotic, needy, with a penchant for calling out the fire brigade for no practical reason. Nathalie has a second issue: she is a published author and editor whose publishers are starting to hassle her about modernistic layouts, designs, covers etc., to update and increase her ‘marketability’: a case of the medium bent on obscuring the message.
And there’s Fabien himself, a former student, turned writer and teacher and radical. Nathalie is blind to any faults in Fabien – she was a communist herself, back in 1968, though the conservative Heinz wasn’t – and in another film this woyuld be where the sexual tension would be inserted. But that’s not what their relationship is about, not even impliedly. They greet and separate with the French double air-kiss, but that’s all. Nathalie, though still attractive for her age (she is Isabelle Huppert, remember), appears to have no physical urges of any kind.
What we have is a portrait, almost a still-life. It’s a courageously long introduction, because it’s over 21 minutes into the 98 minute film, long past any point an American or British film would tolerate, before Chloe intercepts her father as he leaves his school? college? to tell him she knows he is seeing someone else, and that he must choose, and soon.
We know how he will choose – if he chooses Nathalie there is no film – but it’s not until the 29th minute that he tells his wife.
The rest of the film is the fall-out from that, except that things never seem to go any further. Nathalie and Heinz’s separation is placid and civilised. Yes, she has some waspish comments for him, but rather fewer than might be expecyed from a woman spurned after twenty-five years of expecting her husband to love her forever. We’ve see the comfortable relationship they’ve had, in which the only differences are philosophical, which is why we can believe that this pair were once in love, but over the course of the uncoupling, Nathalie’s main emotional responses are frustrated annoyance at Heinz taking books she wanted to keep, and the thought of no longer being able to visit his family holiday home in Brittany, where she has worked for so many years on the garden. The marriage itself? No.
But this, and the subsequent divorce, are just the first separation. Nathalie decides she has to put her mother into a rest home, only for the old lady to refuse to leave her bed, or eat until Nathalie returns from Brittany. But offstage, she suffers a fall and dies, resulting in a funeral, a service, a philosophical reading and, in a rare moment, tears in a Paris Metro carriage.
And the difficulties with her publihers escalate, to the point where her past works look like being retired. Nathalie takes refuge at Fabien’s collective, where she is comfortably the oldest there and out-of-date too. She takes her mother’s fat old cat, Pandora, which tears off into the forest at the first opportunity. Though Nathalie scorns the cat, wantsrid of it, claims to be allergic to it, she’s constantly calling for it’s return – one loss too many?
But she is free, total freedom. No husband, no children, no mother, nothing to tie her down. Nathalie can do anything she wants. Fabien believes she’ll soon find herself another man, though she pours scorn on that idea, due to her age. Though there is another moment when she cries, alone in her farm bed but for Pandora, Nathalie has no want for emotion. Alone in the cinema, a man in his thirties pursues her, a hand on her knee, changing seats, following her away from the cinema. He catches up with her, tells her she’s beautiful, forces a kiss on her, but she tells him she doesn’t feel like it and walks away, and helets her.
The film then jumps a year. Chloe has just given birth, a baby boy. Nathalie is still waspish with Heinz, producing tears in her daughter after her father leaves, but nothing else has changed. It’s just a year has gone by, and Nathalie’s freedom of action has not led her to alter her life on bit. There’s a final visit to the farm, in winter, to leave Pandora for good, a hit of grass and a night scene wih Fabien that would otherwise be pregnant with the implication that they’re finally gonna fuck, but this is not that film, and whilst on the one hand I applaud the refusal to indulge in cliche, the implication is solely in the context and none of it in the characters, and is like the rest of the film curiously still, almost inert.
In the morning, Fabien hugs Nathalie at the station as she returns to Paris – implying one final separation out of her life – and drives back to the farm along snowy roads. This is the only scene of the film that does not take place around Huppert. Nathalie returns to Paris and a Xmas Dinner, relieving Heinz of his keys to their former home after he retrieves one last book.
That leads into the ending. Endings in films like this are problematic, because there has been no real beginning. An ending implies the stopping or cessation or completion of something separable as a discrete phase or period, but the lack of any kind of progression makes an ending impossible to achieve. All you can do is you, and how and where do you do that?
Hansen-Love chooses to do this by having the baby cry, Nathalie leave the meal to comfort it whilst the young ones eat. She cradles the baby, sings to it, a romantic love song. The camera pans back into the hall so that we can see the three young ones at table eating on the left, Nathalie with the baby in another room on the right, a wide gap between them, and a final edging away so only the rooms can be seen, no people. On the soundtrack, a stilted version of ‘Unchained Melody’ sung by a woman for whom English is not her first language, leads into the credits.
I have an adage, almost an aphorism. The irreducible minimum requirement of fiction is that it must make us care about something that never happened to someone who never existed. Nathalie Chevaux interests me, but in the end I find I cannot really care. She is purely of the mind, striving to express all things as a mental exercise, a philosphical stance or point. I don’t say that she is wromg, or that Mia Hansen-Love has made a bad film in portraying someone whose thinks and acts that way, just that I need the infusion of Thought and Emotion, and Things to Come does not give me the other half of the equation.