The Innocents & Things to Come

April 29, 2017
Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 7.27.17 pm

There’s no category in contemporary cinema more demeaning than the ‘chick flick’. It suggests a sloppy romance of the Barbara Cartland variety, or a superficial, feel-good movie with a ‘girl power’ theme. Either way the term eliminates one half of the human race as a willing audience, and patronises the other.

This week two very different ‘chick flicks’ from the 2017 French Film Festival are being given an Australian release. Both films are the work of female directors, and feature strong central roles for their lead actresses. In both films the story is viewed largely from a female perspective. At this point all comparsons must cease.

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents is the most solemn – or perhaps, least frivolous – film of her career, after features such as Gemma Bovary (2014), Adore (2013) and Coco Before Chanel (2009).

The lead character is Mathilde, a young French doctor working with the Red Cross to take care of injured French soldiers in Warsaw at the end of World War 2. It’s a breakthrough role for the delightfully-named, Lou de Laâge, who has been a teenager in all her previous outings. Not only is this a grown-up part, it’s an extremely demanding one. Matilde is a serious but compassionate person who strives to hold herself aloof from both the horrors of war and the pains of human relationships.

When a young Polish nun begs her to help with an emergency, Mathilde initially refuses, as she’s only authorised to work with the soldiers. Watching the nun praying in the snow she relents, and finds herself delivering a baby in a convent. The nuns are tight-lipped and hostile, but she soon realises this is not the only pregnancy.

During the war the convent was overrun by first German, then Soviet troops, who saw the women as legitimate spoils of victory. The trauma the nuns have suffered is compounded by their religious faith and the rules of the order, which don’t allow the sisters to even touch one another. With the help of the most level-headed of the nuns, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), Mathilde undertakes the task of seeing them through the deliveries, which must be kept secret.

She can’t tell her commander, or even Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) the sardonic Jewish doctor with whom she shares meals and occasionally her bed. Her work with the nuns is exhausting and dangerous, but Mathilde grows increasingly committed to these women who gradually reveal the personalities that lie beneath the habits.

The Innocents is a film about conscience: the sense of responsibility Mathilde feels towards the convent, and the difficulties the nuns experience in reconciling their holy vows with their status as expectant mothers. Most of the action seems to be shot in darkness or twilight, symbolising the uncertainties and anxieties that afflict the characters. Music is used sparingly, only to add atmosphere, not to underline dramatic moments in the script.

Fontaine went on two retreats before starting this project. The experience shows in the way she portrays the life of the convent, and the constant battle with faith that besets the devotees of a religious order. These dilemmas are not dropped into the plot as themes or motifs, they are intrinsic to the narrative. We are invited not simply to observe, but to participate in the collective process of soul-searching.

If The Innocents is about faith, Things to Come is a movie about reason. Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, a high-school philosophy teacher (Yes, they have secondary school philosophy courses in France!), married to Heinz (André Marcon), a university lecturer in philosophy. Aside from the fact that their dinner table conversation is littered with philosophical references, Nathalie and Heinz lead pretty ordinary lives.

They have two teenage children, a girl and a boy. Nathalie also has the burden of an aged, depressive prima donna of a mother (Edith Scob), who requires constant attention. In the course of a few days we see her with mother; with her students, who find her an inspiring teacher; and with a favourite ex-student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who is now writing his own anarchistic, philosophical treatises.

When Heinz suddenly tells Nathalie he’s leaving her for a younger woman, she doesn’t go nuclear, like the heroine of Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Days of Abandonment. She takes it philosophically.

Nathalie visits Fabien and his friends in the country, she takes charge of her mother’s old black cat. She is resilient – in the way only Isabelle Huppert can be resilient.

It’s up to viewers to decide whether director, Mia Hansen-Love, has given us a story full of profound insights into the meaning of life, or a rather plodding soap opera with a philosophical gloss. Even at moments of extreme marital crisis, the temperature between Nathalie and Heinz never gets beyond luke-warm.

When Heinz comes back to see his wife at their apartment, it’s mainly because he’s missing his copy of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. It’s one thing to be tossed over for another woman, but quite another to be overshadowed by a 19th century German philosopher who looked like a koala. Only the French could think themselves into such a dilemma, let alone make a movie about it.

The Innocents
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Written by Sabrina B. Karne, Alice Vial, Anne Fontaine & Pascal Bonitzer
Starring Lou de Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Anna Próchniak
France/Poland, rated M, 115 mins

Things to Come
Written & directed by Mia Hansen Love
Starring Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka, Edith Scob, Sarah Le Picard, Solal Forte
France/Germany, rated M, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22nd April, 2017