Berlinale correspondent Elena Lazic examines how Mia Hansen-Løve’s last two films, Eden and L’Avenir (Things to Come), reverse-engineer seemingly cliched stories in order to find the emotional truth and realism buried within them.
Common narrative tropes were once original, but repetition has turned them into soulless objects of mockery, parody even, that are barely connected to reality. Some films revel in and perpetuate cliches until they become completely self-referential — abstract ideas completely detached from any kind of realism. On the contrary, Mia Hansen-Løve’s last two films, Eden and L’Avenir (Things to Come) reverse-engineer seemingly cliched stories in order to find the emotional truth and realism buried within them.
In Eden, the protagonist Paul (Felix de Givry) is perpetually convinced that he is just about to “make it”. But this stalwart belief in this cliched vision of success dooms him: Paul ends up spending much of his youth on the margins of success and happiness. Paul may not have understood this, but Hansen-Løve almost brutally ensures the viewer does. The film’s structure — a series of episodes, each separated by months or years — allows Hansen-Løve to show how Paul’s life only changes in insignificant details (new girlfriend, new haircut, etc).
Although Paul lives a comfortable life, the jumps in time over several decades, which occur in a matter-of-fact manner, bluntly highlight that Paul is ultimately going nowhere: he struggles financially and constantly borrows money from his mother, he treats his girlfriends pretty badly and doesn’t take off as a DJ. In Eden, Paul is doomed by a cliched vision of success as something that comes naturally to the talented.
Isabelle Huppert’s character in Things to Come, Nathalie, is also the victim of her own false sense of confidence, but in a different way. While Paul thinks that talent leads to success, Nathalie begins the film certain that divorce only happens to other people. In Eden and Things to Come, Hansen-Løve suggests that we tend to believe that positive cliches will come true, while negative ones are pure fantasies. The characters’ complacency in these beliefs distracts them from reality to the point where they end up in unenviable situations.
In Eden, Paul is apathetic about where his life is going and oblivious to the people around him. He misses the many obvious signposts that suggest his friend Cyril (Roman Kolinka) is in danger of committing suicide. More tellingly, perhaps, is Paul’s attitude toward the women in his life: like his career in music, he just lets romantic relationships happen to him. Partners come and go without him really fighting for any of them.
Unlike Paul, Nathalie appears to be a strong-willed person with a sense of purpose. In the opening sequence, she stands up to some menacing-looking teenagers protesting outside her school, unfazed and determined to go teach, to do her job. Yet, although she is convinced that she is down-to-earth, she finds herself in a situation where she appears to be blind to her reality. Without even realising, she is living out cliches: the wife left by her husband for a younger woman; the philosophy teacher who does not practice what she preaches; and the academic whose writing is out of fashion. She suddenly has to face the fact that, to many, she appears irrelevant.
Things to Come covers about ten years rather than several decades, as Eden did. This may be why it is more forgiving of its central character. We feel the weight of Nathalie’s disappointments — losing her husband, her mother, and her book deal — because we have to watch her live with them. They aren’t simply mentioned in passing after a fast forward in the narrative. By contrast, most of Paul’s major milestones happen off screen, suggesting that he did not realise their significance and how these would forever alter his life.
Huppert gives an understated performance as a witty and optimistic woman experiencing many life-changing events with a hint of (more or less feigned) indifference. Her enthusiasm carries the film through its most surprising and heart-wrenching moments. Nathalie eventually accepts her increasingly difficult reality and does everything to move on. But as we witness her misfortunes, we’re alternatively hit by waves of sadness, of surprise at her reaction, and of intense worry: will she eventually give up? Is she actually fine, or just faking it?
Many early scenes find Nathalie meeting up with other people — the number of times Huppert says “salut” is staggering, even for a French film. As the film goes on, she finds herself more and more alone, and forced to face her feelings: she sometimes bursts into tears in closer intimates shots. But it’s never for long. Her whole attitude seems to change when she begins to appreciate the perks of her new life. “My kids are gone; my husband’s left me; my mom is dead: I’m free!” she claims at one point, with equal parts sarcasm and genuine happiness.
In Things to Come, Hansen-Løve focuses on a proactive character and follows her direct reactions to disappointments. Hansen-Løve seems inclined to offer a more nuanced reading of Nathalie’s situation than Paul’s in Eden, whom she seems to blame for his misfortune — perhaps because Paul so often hurt others, especially his girlfriends. While Paul was a victim only in the sense that his dreams did not come true, Nathalie suffers much more directly, and her pain is not a clear result of her own behaviour.
Instead of pointing fingers, Hansen-Løve interrogates who, if anyone, is to blame for these catastrophes, without ever coming to a clear conclusion. Is there anything Nathalie could have done differently for her husband to stay, for her mother to feel better, for her book deal not to fall through? Whatever the answer, by the end, Hansen-Løve suggests that no matter what disappointments you face or what awful cliche you’ve somehow become, there are always more changes to come: life goes on.