It’s telling that bad reviews of Miranda July’s The Future (2011) fault it for being either an airy piece of “whimsy”, or a bitter work of nihilism, two qualities which seem mutually exclusive. This film is steel wrapped in cotton – a surreal but highly focused attack on self-absorbed, ‘postmodern’ malaise. Dismissing the film as trendily twee, or superficially kooky is to mistake the hunter for its prey – any who attend seeking that sort of fare may find that July has painted them a rather unflattering portrait (it’s not a great advert for Apple products, either).
Our scruffy, thirty-ish protagonists Jason and Sophie are introduced sitting opposite on a sofa, surfing the net on matching MacBooks, having a kooky imaginary contest of hypothetical telekinetic powers. The scene’s half-dead atmosphere makes it clear that these people are not being presented to us as rolemodels, as they would in any contemporary mobile phone/digital camera/dating site advert. They seem every bit as bored of their forced banter as many viewers will soon be.
In physical terms, Jason and Sophie’s relationship is barely worth the name – we never see them even kiss. The moment when Sophie consummates her love affair with an older man partway through is jarring, partly because of its presentation, but partly because until that point sex simply hasn’t existed in this film’s universe. The two actors’ physical resemblance reinforces our sense that each of them is really in a relationship with themselves.
Another bad sign is that their relationship is revolving around a stray cat, shown on-screen only once and thereafter mimed by a pair of puppet paws in occasional interludes. We hear it’s inner thoughts through voiceover, as it anxiously waits for the couple to pick it up for adoption. Rather than being ‘quirk’ for its own sake, these scenes are really a straightforward and powerful little metaphor for Jason and Sophie’s crumbling relationship. In each case these cretins have taken responsibility for something fragile and pure, which they are allowing to slowly perish through self-absorbed neglect.
Its broken little voice recalls the one inside us all which would rather cling to the warmth of even a fading partnership than return alone to the big, black “Outside”. Their discussions on the animal’s impending arrival echo the inner turmoil of the commitment-phobe. Both at first rely on the assumption that it will last just for six months or so, only to realise too late that the bond they are entering may persist for years. Terrified of how old they might be once this thing finally dies, they imagine the chain reaction they have unwittingly set in motion consuming the rest of their lives.
Throughout the film uses bizarre, impressionist images to depict very real feelings and experiences human beings have every day, its surrealist tendencies taking over completely by the later scenes (if you find the cat narration grating, you should really just duck out at half-time). After the couple both attempt and fail to realise their half-baked dreams, Sophie escapes into a more ‘mature’ substitute lover, but finds that he is really just offering a more grown-up kind of prison. His young daughter says she’s happy to bury herself up to the neck in the garden at night, but we don’t really believe her, and a love-worn old shirt crawls painfully across town to remind Sophie how much of herself she has left behind. Jason, meanwhile, freezes time at the moment she tries to tell him the bad news, trapping himself in a parallel universe where nothing good or bad will ever happen to anyone ever again. His own wiser, older instincts talk him down in the form of the moon, and they eventually join forces to get things moving again.
The final scene didn’t feel remotely ‘nihilistic’ to me – certainly nowhere near as bleak as the first, which it mirrors. We close on Sophie and Jason physically apart, not speaking but still in the midst of a real and damaging argument. Despite this, they seem much closer and more engaged with each other than they did when lying, legs entwined, self-consciously trading bland platitudes. This embodies one character’s earlier suggestion, and perhaps the film’s central message, that what seems to be the end of their life together may be just “the end of the beginning”. Whether they stay together or not, these two are at least free of their co-dependent little cul-de-sac. Like the maimed cat, who realises that in death it has transcended the need for ownership and even the label “cat”, we can assume they are going to a better place.
IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE
This film reminded Peter Bradshaw of the Sam Mendes comedy Away We Go (2009), co-scripted by Dave Eggers, and also of Douglas Coupland’s novel Miss Wyoming (2000), you know the one. It was important to him that you know this.