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Surrounded by Great Thinkers: On the Use of Literary References in Things To Come

Written by Rik Niks and posted on Monday March 27, 2017
Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) in Things To Come.
Warning: Spoilers follow for Things To Come.

Starting with Adorno and ending somewhere near Zola, an almost complete A to Z of names of writers and philosophers are poured out on the viewer during Things To Come (2016). Even the well-read viewer might at times feel a little stupid when watching a film like Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest. Citation of names (frequently obscure), book titles and fragments is a common part of French cinema. One might even say a cliché of French cinema, which also has a negative effect in several ways.

I have to admit: it would be quite tough to create a film about a teacher of philosophy without literary references. Especially as the field of philosophy consists in large part of reflecting on the thoughts of other philosophers. In that way, it’s only natural to see Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) teach a text of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to students, or discuss with a former student the possibilities of writing an essay on Günther Anders. These references serve the purpose to give a realistic idea of the daily life of Nathalie Chazeaux.

It would have worked out fine if this charming and otherwise original film would’ve left it at that. Unfortunately, the references are also used to add depth to the characters and the story. So when Nathalie discusses Rousseau with students, it’s just as much about what the cited fragment tells us about Nathalie. And when Nathalie has to give a eulogy at the burial of her mother, she chooses to cite Pascal’s Pensées. A fragment not only significant for her mother, but for herself as well. The film even opens with a meaningful visit of Nathalie’s family at the burial ground of Chateaubriand.

Recycling of Ideas

One of my main problems with these kind of references, is that it requires (too) little creativity from the filmmaker to add depth to a story. Pascal did the clever thinking, Rousseau found the right words. All the director has to do, is recycle words and thoughts that are already art in itself. Of course, it should logically fit within the original story. But it almost always feels like a cheap way to insert some ideas, or worse: a hint of depth, to a film.

My second concern is that literary references fit badly with the audio-visual medium that film is. At least in the way they are used in Things To Come. Direct citation, of which this film contains many examples, is merely a lazy kind of copy-paste. I much more enjoy cinematic references, as they usually require some visual cleverness to incorporate these in a film. Cinematic references are therefore being used in a much wider range of varieties. Compare this to the clichéd way of the actor citing a passage from the book they are reading:

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Things To Come (2016).

An Introspective Life

Both my concerns are complemented by a more disturbing consideration about the way these references are used to portray Nathalie. I found myself often wondering if Things To Come was meant to be a kind of pastiche about the elitist kind of life Nathalie lives. We see her casually reading a difficult essay in a crowded metro, in more than one way a great accomplishment! Later on, as she explores the beautiful country side we see her reading in front of the most wonderful landscapes, totally absorbed in her book. (Note the uncomfortable way she lies, lightly dressed, in the prickly grass). It could be signifiers of an extremely introspective kind of life, a character flaw that has to be solved. But I am not sure it is meant that way. Nathalie argues with Fabian that she has regained freedom after her divorce. Philosophy is all she ever needs, and Mia Hansen-Løve seems to agree.

The final scene contains a poignant moment, as it showed to me that Nathalie is incapable of enjoying a happy occasion, such as the visit of her grandchild, in the way most people would. Even this occasion is framed in her philosophical mind-set, as she chooses to give a children’s version of Plato as a present. The fact that this scene is presented as a kind of catharsis, makes me feel that Hansen-Løve values her obsession with writers and philosophers in a positive way. Or at least has no second thoughts on how this present symbolizes the way she tries to carry over the philosophy-gene to the next generation.

Self-congratulatory

In one way Things To Come is a brave film, avoiding the clichéd romances that usually occur in films with single main characters. In another way, the dedication to literature and philosophy felt like a conservative choice. Few viewers of a film, such as this one, would disagree with the importance of intellectual growth, and the benefits of literature. Therefore, a sense of self-congratulation is never far away. Especially when one is able to recognize the references.

But to me as a viewer, it always feels like I am a bit pigeonholed. To watch a film like Things To Come, one should be well read. To be well read, one needs to appreciate the value of literature. When one appreciates literature, one should embrace the message of Things To Come. I felt little space to develop my own thoughts about the film.

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Pierrot le fou (1965), Jean-Luc Godard.

Things To Come is far from exceptional in this kind of use of literary references. A lot of French films contain characters reading a book, citing passages or throwing in names of writers, starting probably with the Nouvelle Vague films of the 60s. This phenomenon is less frequent to be seen in cinema of other countries. This adds to an image of French cinema as being focused on highbrow culture, even celebrating a way of life that only fits with that of well-educated people. A film like Things To Come, with its references mainly to French writers and thinkers (as many French films do), feels like a commercial of the rich French literary canon. It is very rare that a highbrow reference is used as an negative connotation. Maybe that is why it feels in a way refreshing when Omar Sy pokes fun at highbrow art in a French film (in The Intouchables).

A Literary Comment on Intellectualism

By coincidence, about the same time I saw Things To Come I finished reading Submission by Michel Houllebecq. This novel has a similar intellectual introspectiveness, with its university teacher that dedicates his life to a dead French writer. Submission (in)famously portraits a French society that is led by an Islamic political party. It seems Houllebecq criticizes the French elite: absorbed in studies about the glorious French past, but with little engagement when it comes to contemporary issues.

It is as if Submission is a comment on such people we witness in Things To Come. Nathalie has a sharp response when it comes to people discussing topical issues. She has clearly given matters great thought, but chooses to keep distance. This distance, resulting in a lack of involvement with society, makes her seem like the kind of elitist Houellebecq writes about. Mia Hansen-Løve’s film and Michel Houellebecq’s novel make interesting companion pieces about French intellectualism.

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