23 Apr 2020
Mia Hansen-Løve’s film Things to Come (L’Avenir, 2016) depicts a woman at a time of personal crisis: her husband has unexpectedly left her, her publisher has dropped the book series she edits, and caring for her elderly mother is becoming an impossible demand. The incomparable Isabelle Huppert injects a taut energy into the role of Nathalie, as she faces up to the disintegration of her world. As the title suggests, this is a film about futurity, and what happens when the future we had imagined falls apart. It asks us to reflect upon the ways in which we find ourselves living in the future tense, experiencing our lives along a line always pointing forwards to the next achievement, event, or projected fulfilment. However it might play out for individuals, this is a collective phenomenon. We live in what Byung-Chul Han calls ‘the achievement era’, obsessed with personal motivation and objectives. We are expected to keep ourselves constantly busy (even if it’s just scrolling through Reddit or Instagram on our smartphones) and this makes us ideal consumers as we purchase the accessories of productivity and self-realisation, or turn to retail therapy to recover from it all. Things to Come makes this connection subtly, through the character of Fabien, a former student of Nathalie’s, who is a member of an anarchist group seeking an alternative, collective way of life. While Fabien’s group doesn’t offer a clear solution, his conversations with Nathalie reveal that what we expect from our future is often unthinkingly determined by powerful social forces. The theorist Lauren Berlant has described this as ‘cruel optimism’, which exisits when ‘something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’. Berlant suggests that cruel optimism is exposed in moments of ‘impasse’, where a crisis slows us down and our fantasy future decomposes.
The current deluge of COVID-19 cancellations, furloughs and closures is a massive-scale moment of such decomposition, creating an acute, widespread feeling of loss. Alongside grave material losses for many, bereavements, and less serious but still painful disappointments for others, the way we experience time is being challenged. Living in this impasse, perhaps we can find hope by detaching ourselves from the achievement era’s prescribed future and finding different ways of being. Confined to the present, we also find ourselves prioritising solidarity, community, and love.