It is said you need to please your audience with your film. Problem is, your film will have many different audiences, each with a different desire of what to get out of it. The old saying is you can't be everything to all people. But how can you get close enough so that many of those audiences walk away feeling content, or even happy with what they've just seen? The answer, as always with my screeds here is, it depends.
Let's look at one particular upcoming film Things to Come (L'avenir is the French title) – US release December 2nd distributed by IFC Films Sundance Selects by writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve and starring Isabelle Huppert. We’ll use differing perspectives from two separate audiences who happened to watch the film at the same time while it played the Telluride Film Festival. These disparate audiences are the film critic's view versus the cinephilic movie going public.
The movie review is the easy part, something I've done before on these pages. The contemporaneous audience reaction is rarer to encapsulate. But we're in luck because of a wonderful offering unique to Telluride Film Fest and has been available for nearly 20 years. The Conversations are a series of intimate discussions that are unmoderated between various filmmakers and the regular folk attending the fest. The atmosphere, managed deftly as always by Tom Goodman, takes on a dinner party conversational tone and becomes a “conversation” in its truest sense. I try to attend at least one Conversation every festival and was able to attend this year's event with Hanson-Løve and Huppert.
We'll interweave the usual film critics take with actual questions and answers that were parried during the Conversation. Let's see what different take-aways reveal themselves.
Reality usually gets short shrift in films. Hollywood is quick to exaggerate, explode (often literally) with embellishments in order to keep an audience interested, or at least distracted from their story’s shortcomings. It’s dangerous in a fictional narrative to present a reflection of the real world as it is and let the audience decide if it is keenly interested in the characters and day to day events of a life. It takes a strong writer/director with keen instincts and gumption as well as a brave actor willing to lay bare without artifice the realities of just living in an interesting, compelling performance. Luckily two fully qualified participants were ready for the challenge in Things to Come (L’avenir).
Writer/director Mia Hanson-Løve’s career is filled with films she’s admittedly taken from her own life and experiences. She writes what she knows, sometimes literally, while still managing to make a dramatic interpretation of the real life background she draws from. Her results, especially in Things to Come, are unblinking glimpses into a believable life. Anyone who has lived knows that real life can bring you more drama than you can handle at times. Just living through it can be an adventure. Hanson-Løve is capable of capturing that on film with a style and determination leading to a unique cinematic expression worth viewing.
I am often one to point out the differences between European cinema versus Hollywood’s approaches. French cinema in general is exemplary of the European model of slower paced, character-centric storytelling, allowing the audience to breathe in the feelings of a piece. In this mode Hanson-Løve goes even further than her fellow countryfolk in seeking that reflection of reality. Her skill is demonstrated in accomplishing her goal with Things to Come which has already received the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival.
Conversation Question: Where do you think French Cinema is going?
Hanson-Løve: French cinema has always been extremely free. It's not like there is one French cinema. There are a lot of new directors, lots of women directors. I’ve been told (this film) is the most French film ever. It's a statement to make films that looks like life, not cinema.
In a story so reliant in the personality of a character to interest the audience, it is paramount to find a lead actor who is comfortable in a skin that exposes all its flaws to the audience. Here Hanson-Løve found her fearless collaborator in the consummate French actress Isabelle Huppert.
CQ: Did you write the part with Ms. Huppert in mind?
HL: I couldn't imagine anyone other than her in the part. We haven't worked together before. And this was the first time I’ve ever had an actor in mind for a role while creating it. Something about the project scared me. I felt it might be too dark. Isabel gave me faith in the part. We never had to explain things to each other. We were totally on the same level, in tune. Ambivalence, nuances, ideas in life. She got it before I had to tell her about it.
Huppert is a very busy actress with many requests for her to take on diverse roles (in fact, she’s also starring in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle out this year as well.) There’s a certain connection that has to be established between the script, character, actor and director. If the spark is there, as in this film, something extra comes out of the mix, enlivening and broadening the audience’s experience.
CQ: What drew you to the role?
Isabelle Huppert: What speaks to me the most is dialog and how it relates most to character projects for myself. A key piece is the relationship of the director to the ensemble, to the actor, the dialog. It is a lot of thinking. Something grows inside yourself. You spend a long time developing. You have to believe. Then with costumes, hair, etc. it becomes a fusion between you and someone else. Cinema is about THE present moment. There is nothing you can predict about that. Through director choices, blocking, weather, you have to believe in this magic. It is very volatile, a moment captured in life.
It's all about trust. It’s a precious one this weird relationship between actress and director. Hard to define. Something you feel. You have to trust the director. It's the beauty about what I do.
In this film the director/actor bond is palpable. More than a female director guiding a female lead through a female centric story, there is an understanding of what it would be like to BE the character in both the presence of the character portrayed and the manner in which the outside world is meant to view her. The style of approach of the direction, the absence of close-ups, the pacing of the film, all convey a continuity for the audience that we know this character, flaws and all. And greater still, we care for her as we would our own family member going through her life crises.
Not to say that the whole world can be portrayed perfectly in such a movie. The male characters in particular do not get a significant focus so come off somewhat secondary. Which isn’t a knock against the film or story structure, just an admission that film can reflect life, but there will always be distortions from reality and missing bits in the translation.
CQ:What'd your father think about the male parts?The husband turned out somewhat non-sympathetic.
HL: I never meant for that to happen –
IH: “It's the way that I did it!”
HL: I have a lot of sympathy for him. It’s very human.
With the turmoil in the industry with a lack of female attention, it’s refreshing to have a strongly portrayed, female centric story that does not need to balance along a gender line.
The story of the film is a simple one to describe but plays out in complexities on screen. The main character, Nathalie, is a philosophy professor whose life is stagnant and locked in routines she toils through daily, seemingly without reflection. A cascade of events begin to remove the pins holding her life in place one by one and we see her reel and react to each. Is she losing control or gaining freedom? How can she tell? It’s the journey rather than any one decision or destination where the intriguing bits lie.
The story is told through many means, the literal happenings and metaphorical (philosophical?) symbolism. The audience can find their own meaning in any manner of elements portrayed in this intricately woven film.
CQ: What’s the meaning of the cat?
HL: That’s a question I get more than questions of being a women director. It’s a long answer. It goes to the general theme of, “You have to lose everything in order to find yourself.” The cat has an erotic sense. It’s a conveyor of that tension.
(Then followed an unprintable story about the real cat’s name. - I told you the Conversations are a unique event at Telluride, didn’t I? - CS)
IH: It was a very heavy cat that no one helped me carry! It has so many meanings.
HL: It was a conscious decision to work with a non-professional cat for lots of reasons, cheaper, privacy. We knew it would never do what we expected it to do.
But portraying a story that takes so much from real life has it’s perils. How close to real life is too close? For a writer/director it is a personal decision how much to base realistic characters on people you know. The balance is precarious. Sometimes it’s themes, sometimes it’s details. The right mix, as achieved in Things to Come, falls in that ill-defined valley between those choices.
HL: The story is all about philosophical concepts. Both my parents are philosophy teachers. It’s part of my life, very natural. I grew up in a world where this was normal. You cook and talk about Schopenhauer. The character’s strength comes from her philosophy. It’s interesting to make a film about that, nobody does.
In the end the audience will decide whether the reality portrayed is real enough for them. I, for one, was well satisfied.
- More articles by Christopher Schiller
- Inside Telluride Film Festival: 'Palo Alto' Interviews
- Behind the Lines with DR: Cutting Scenes - Pace or Play
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