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Berlinale 2016 – L’Avenir

L'Avenir (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)

We track a man in profile, silhouetted by motion-blurred greenery. He is deep in contemplation. He is considering the ultimatum his daughter has just offered: leave mom or give up his affair. He is Heinz (André Marcon), a philosophy teacher, a husband and a father in Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come). Our protagonist and the ‘mom’ in question is Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), also a philosophy teacher.

Both the ultimate satisfactions and the cognitive dissonance of L’Avenir’s characters stem from the texts and people that populate their lives. Both fill them with emotions, but unlike the people, the texts are cultural currency, evidenced when Nathalie encounters authorial loss of one’s own work on two occasions. We witness her visited by one of her former star students, who asks if she might be able to get him a few copies of a thesis on Adorno written for her course. She picks up a few copies and is asked to pay for them. “We used to get twelve copies for free” she laments. Later on, as her own work is prepared for a new printing, she meets with hot head execs who show her the new cover art mock-ups, designed to make the philosophy inside seem more exciting. The film illustrates how both thinkers’ ideas become someone else’s property as a practical demonstration of ‘Property is theft!’ rather than just having them shout it from the rooftops.

Thanks to my questionable yet more-often-than-not-highly-rewarding festival practice of frequently walking into a film knowing precious little about it other than the title and promotional still (and by proxy any big name stars) I walked into L’Avenir with it in mind as ‘the Isabelle Huppert movie’. As such, I had no idea it was directed by the established 35-year old directress, Mia Hansen-Løve, which led to my very own brush with cognitive dissonance. From the outset, the film’s style is quiet and unpronounced; virtually unnoticeable. As the story progressed, the camera grew slightly more adventurous in its movements, its points of rest, its points of interest… By film’s end I was certain it had been directed by some French 60-year old cinephile who might have taught Philosophy once and whom I probably knew from a past film or two. I felt his guilt being processed through Heinz’s ending of an age-old marriage. I felt his sense of empathy in focusing on a woman in her early 60s re-building and exploring her personality as a newly freed individual – an effort to experience things from the other side of his own disputes. The narrative content spoke to this assumption, while the camera indicated such smooth and careful use, balancing independent movement with reserved tact.  My presumption that the film was directed by an older male stemmed primarily from my own experience of film: I tend to associate this particular style (assured but not flashy) with an older male director past his prime who still has something to say. He has traded in his old days of wild experimentation for a more precise life of repose and observation. One can imagine my very pleasant surprise when the credits informed me of the actual authorship. My assumption of male authorship came from the simple truth that I have seen more films by male directors. The assumption of age, however, came from its wise aura. Our protagonist is older, and the narrative deals in aging, death, and understanding these facts of life. Life is informed by death; you cannot have one without the other. My false assumption about the authorial voice behind L’Avenir speaks to the early scene of authorial loss of control. Even if we can come to terms with mortality, it is another thing entirely to consider the life-cycle of a work. As Roland Barthes separated art from the artist with his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author,’ so must every artist recognize that by bringing to life new work in the world, so too must they lay to rest their own assumptions or intentions about that work. An artist might say ‘my works are my babies’ but when they are released into the world they are no longer children and must be let loose to speak and fend for themselves, to go out and inspire new works removed from their original context and free of authorial constraints. So continues the cycle of life and death.

I am watching the couple seated in front of me watching Isabelle Huppert in Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir watching Juliette Binoche in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. A strange man starts to approach her in the theater and I am struck by the cavernous discrepancy between their uncomfortable encounter and the couple cuddling in front of me. L’Avenir exemplifies how love can bring out the worst in us by juxtaposing two versions of Nathalie. While ‘happily’ married she goes about her routines, irritated by interruptions from her bed-ridden mother and content with life if not truly living it. She has settled. Her bookshelves are well-populated. After she loses the stability of her home-life, she re-gains the vigor of her life. The camera moves more as we follow her into a new chapter of breaking routine and fending for herself. When Nathalie first learns that her husband is leaving her for another woman, she seems first and foremost to be not so much heartbroken as bothered by the impractical nature of the situation: she’s embarrassed. She feels like a sucker. Yes, she cries – several times – but it seems due more to the upheaval of a way of life she’s grown comfortable with over time. L’Avenir reminds us of the importance of the mundane stuff of life which seems unimportant – but only because we fail to take the time to notice it. And so it is that Nathalie finds herself once again dealing with the materials shared between her and her husband which she’d taken granted for so long. There are disagreements about who owns which books, and she decides to take everything she owns out of their beach house because she’s never coming back. By separating herself instantaneously and rather thoroughly, she begins to recognize the existential freedom brought about by confrontations with death and a cycle of rebirths; the death of a 25-year marriage, the death of our parents, letting your children leave home when the time comes. Nathalie seemingly has everything ‘taken away’ from her, only to end up experiencing ‘total freedom’ as a result. It’s the understanding and coming to terms with these deaths that allows us to fully enjoy and live in the present moment. At film’s end Nathalie holds her newborn granddaughter in her arms; a new life brought forth from all the emotional chaos of relationships. One of the roughly hundred referenced philosophical texts in the film is criticized because ‘It preaches to the converted.’ L’Avenir does not preach but speaks to anyone with a heart and a brain willing to listen. Settling on Earth is a bad habit; we all die eventually.