Two films have emerged as Berlin's finest this year intertwined by the fates of festival scheduling. The echoes are simple, but that hardly effaces their power, nor the fact that cinema, an art founded in the magic of images changing over time, can make two films separated by time, in viewing, and history, in setting, part of an enchanted continuum.
If Emily Dickinson had lived today, could she perhaps resemble Isabelle Huppert's fair, adult and satisfied philosophy professor, wife and mother in Mia Hanson-Løve's tender contemporary drama Things to Come? Nearly 150 years earlier, the pleading desire for contentment and the strangling despair of disappointment lays upon the American poet, played briefly by Emily Bell young and Cynthia Nixon until death, in Terence Davies' exquisite biopic A Quiet Passion. Yet how an agile female intelligence and a willful body fits in the world is the subject of both of these new films. Set across time, they both find the world wanting, then and now, for a pathway to a woman's fulfilled happiness.
Terence Davies, as always mining the past for its reverberating, ailing souls and tragic social repression, finds in Emily Dickinson a subject for rigorous, almost austere inquiry. Conversations on the nature of religious dogma, God's touch and distance, marriage, family, artistic creation and more flush A Quiet Passion with a forceful, spiritual and sparring dialog akin to films by Carl Theodor Dreyer. In candlelit and sun-flooded interiors alike, coy intellectual banter within an unusually intelligent family segues over time to hypocrisy, bitterness and dejection, as parents age and siblings grow into complex adults. (Dickinson's mother, played by Joanna Bacon, is practically afforded her own micro-film—and a very moving one—in honor and sorrow for the suffering of silent mothers.)
Though revealing its spare production resources in occasionally unforgiving ways, Davies' film is never short of fierce spirit and barely suppressed outrage at how such a talent, a person, and a soul could be so restrained and twisted by her time. Often sublime and carried by Nixon's performance that blooms ever more yearning as Dickinson grows in isolation and ruthless interior self-inquiry, A Quiet Passion attains that rare balance of being an elegy without resignation. The desperate, gasping death that befalls the poet is a shriek that still can be heard today.
Isabelle Huppert's 21st century woman, in Things to Come, first does not hear it, safe in her teaching job, her marriage of two decades, her intellectual-bourgeois comfort. But these modern structures start to shake at the signs of some of her students protesting new social retirement policies, a detail in passing until a cascading series of events shudders this middle-aged woman's world: the publishing house supporting her books starts to have doubts, her elderly mother needs to be sent to a home, and her husband declares he's leaving her. On paper conceived through a sequence of contrivances, in the hands of an unusually free and unmannered Huppert and a loose, inspired Hansen-Løve, this woman emerges in the sun-drenched light she so often walks in as a full-bodied woman of interior thought and exterior voice, of passivity and of action, of indecision and of firmness.
Hansen-Løve, who has disappointed in her last two films, Goodbye First Love and Eden, achieves moments of radiant insight in brisk, surprising drama: a father ambushed by a generous but resolute daughter about his philandering; a wonderful mirrored scene of the Huppert bringing her mother to a home with her teenage son, who takes the experience with a piqued mixture of disinterest and uncomprehending fear; Huppert kicking up her feet on the coffee table after a long day only to be faced with a tremendous decision. The director's appreciation of her actors and of giving them space to move around through luminous spaces lets them show us the dramas, big and small, of their lives. Huppert lives, roams, reads, thinks, dallies, cries, travels from city to countryside and back, re-considers, pushes on.
And is this woman an improvement, an evolution of Dickinson's tormented being? Has the bourgeois woman, intelligent and self-aware, cushioned by money, been allowed to get closer to a natural and content state of being? Where A Quiet Passion carries Dickinson's poetry as its outlet and its echo, Things to Come carries modern philosophy and the remnant legacy of French radical politics of 1968 as the evocation that is committed to or rejected—or something in-between. It is this state between freedom and constraint, between happiness and sorrow, that Things to Come finds its woman. And improvement surely, that life doesn't have to be one thing or the other; but while the poles can be less extreme, as the camera steps away from Isabelle Huppert's welcome, easeful performance—leaving this drama not at a point of conclusion, but simply at a point—the walls of her home, like those of Emily Dickinson, still define her place in the world.