MY WIFE OFTEN mocks my penchant for austere Euro art movies. So when we went to see Mia Hansen-Love’s L’Avenir (Things to Come) at one of London’s inevitable Curzons, it felt like slipping into an old pair of espadrilles. I remembered liking Hansen-Love’s Le Père de mes enfants (2009) and figured – on the basis of the inevitable reviews by Peter Bradshaw et al. – that I’d like L’Avenir.
And guess what, I did. Apart from anything else, Isabelle Huppert was superb: bustling, unsentimental, alone and ultimately atomised. Yet I wasn’t entirely moved by her late-middle-aged losses, however many of them I’ve shared. That’s partly because her character (Nathalie Chazeaux) so effectively seals herself off from compassion, retreating for comfort into the pensées of Pascal, Rousseau and the many other philosophers whose work she teaches to her Parisian students.
But it’s also partly because L’Avenir felt familiar to the point of generic staleness: with a few changes of wardrobe and automobile, the film could have been made 30 years ago by, say, the great Bertrand Tavernier. The arthouse tropes were reassuringly non-Anglo-American: the endless bookshelves, the coffees and the baguettes, the jagged Alpine mountains and the Brittany coastline, the sardonic political banter à table.
En route home, my wife inevitably asked if I’d enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure. I’d admired it; it wasn’t pretentious; its absence of catharsis was, in many ways, admirable. But had it really just been another fix for my Francophile snobbery? Some residual belief that French intellectuels think more deeply about the human condition than Brits or Yanks do – even when all the pages of Pascal and Rousseau (or, for that matter, Adorno and Schopenhauer, who also get regular namechecks in L’Avenir) offer so little comfort to Hansen’s heroine?
In that connection, here’s a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about, well, my penchant for austere Euro art movies:
Plusher seats and fancier snacks,
Guardianista dreaming in the dark:
No popcorn here, no CGI,
just quiet scenes of bourgeois desperation,
suites in Paris or Milan,
the quaint and crumbly farmhouse,
tension and baguettes,
father, daughter, in a Citroen,
not even speaking.
Four-hour films without a single gun,
occasionally a breadknife raised in anger.
Haneke, Almodovar, Zvyaguintsev's The Return.
Films of slow release for middle-aged and middle-class,
waiting for catharsis as we crunch Wasabi nuts.