L’Avenir (Things to Come) tells the story of the philosophy teacher Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), who has grown to be an intellectual mediocrity. The times that she identified as a communist are over, and today she is dispassionately living her ordinary life; teaching, raising her kids, having a divorce and caring for her sick mother. After her mother dies and her husband leaves her, Nathalie must get used to her newfound freedom.
The film looks great, Isabelle Huppert is a great casting choice and the development of the story is good – it might even have been a joy to watch, if it wasn’t for the fact that L’Avenir never transcends its rather uninteresting story and never decides to show something out of the ordinary. It tries to mask its everyday reality with philosophical quotes, allusions to Rousseau and Levinas (etc.) and talk about marxism and idealism, but these themes never quite catch on. What remains is a film about an middle-aged woman trying to find her way, and not much more.
L’Avenir takes place in Paris, an immaculate Paris that is, for we exclusively meet high-class snobbish philosophy students and teachers. The film doesn’t criticize this setting at all, it even wears it with pride, showing a world in which some philosophy students start an anarchist collective somewhere in the mountains (and survive just by writing academic papers) and practically no-one ever gets bored of obsolete philosophers. In this barely mildly interesting context of rich philosophers, L’Avenir makes a vain attempt to festoon everyday life in the western world with badly aimed excerpts from philosophical works.
Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film features a popular device in arthouse: realism. Often this stylistic choice is what makes this type of independent cinema so powerful; there is a certain probable intimacy between film and audience, the lack of dialogue creates suspense, the assumed possibility of the scenario allows identification. However, the realism in L’Avenir doesn’t quite hit the spot, not because its use is wrong, but because the narrative may simply not be interesting enough for the device. This approximation of reality in L’Avenir only concludes that what we see is everyday life, which doesn’t come across as profound as is being feigned by the film.
However, L’Avenir is not horrible. As I’ve said before, the cinematography is, though predictable, very watchable and the performances of the actors are to be applauded. The film has been given a lot of praise this year, mainly for Huppert’s appearance, and director Mia Hansen-Løve received the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival – it must be said, there are some things to like in L’Avenir, but it never manages to reach something deviant. L’Avenir is not necessarily a bad film, it’s just a film, and perhaps this mediocrity is worse than being grotesque.
The Guardian: “Huppert delivers a note-perfect warm and wry performance as a philosophy teacher whose life is defined by ideas rather than circumstance, a woman of substance – intellectual, emotional, financial – who faces unexpected constraints and freedoms when the assumed certainties of her domestic life unravel.”
Telegraph: “As a portrait of existential crisis, it might all register as po-faced, if it weren’t for the moments of human comedy Hansen-Løve strews across Nathalie’s newly uncertain path.”
Variety: “At once disarmingly simple in form and riddled with rivulets of complex feeling, this story of a middle-aged Parisienne philosophy professor rethinking an already much-examined life in the wake of unforeseen divorce emulates the best academics in making outwardly familiar ideas feel newly alive and immediate […].”