This review is dedicated to Tom Wheeler.
Everyone in this movie is waiting for a sign. The Future is uncertain; it’s like a form of semiotics. How would a happy couple know each other if they forgot they were a couple? How do people who want sex attract the likeminded? How is it that a picture connects with a person? And what do we want people to understand about us? The signals are everywhere. But if we’re too ready, we risk picking up the wrong signals. If we’re unprepared, we risk sending no signal at all. We can be forgotten far more easily than we can be understood. In Miranda July’s sophomore effort as writer/director, everyone wants to communicate their innermost thoughts. The question is: how do we interpret this sincerity? As kitsch?
The movie is narrated by a talking cat. That alone may give viewers pause. What is Miranda July up to? The cat seems sentimental, even mawkish. But it’s also unmediated, like a lot of July’s work: naïve, unknowing, embarrassing… even taboo. She uses the cat to test the limits of privacy. What is too private to be shared? All the people in her films test boundaries of what is deemed appropriate: in terms of sex, or intimacy, the public and private self. In The Future, two people in their thirties raise the question: do our lives have meaning? They don’t have careers, or a family. So they don’t have any of the usual signifiers of a well-lived life. Instead, they seem aimless. They can’t even be motivated to adopt an omniscient cat.
These characters could be seen as straw men by those who hate Miranda July. They seem to embody the kind of navel-gazers who shop at Etsy online. The fact that the woman is played by the director herself doesn’t help. Nor does it help that her co-star has a haircut that bellows: ‘flake’. It’s entirely possible to hate this film on the grounds that it isn’t about real concerns. But I’m convinced Miranda July isn’t a narcissist, and that her films do contain deep truths. Critics of hers use words like ‘twee’ in order to dismiss her. They take her films at surface value: as equal parts girlish naivety and art world pretence. In this way, she inspires the same scorn as Tracey Emin. Both women are underestimated by those who accuse them of acting gauche. Neither woman adopts naivety as a pose.
Maybe ‘raw’ is a better word than ‘naïve’. But ‘raw’ has connotations of anger. It’s a masculine way of playing it straight. Raw emotions can’t be soft…or so we’re led to believe. You’re not meant to mix whimsy with what matters most. That’s why so many critics get angry when Hamish Linklater stops time and starts talking to the moon (in The Future). It isn’t the fantastical part which irks critics; it’s the sense of flightiness, of ‘girlie-ness’, if you will. The sense that a starry-eyed girl is telling us a story and that only a fool would listen to it. As if a unicorn had wandered into a poem by Sylvia Plath. I think Miranda July does this kind of thing instinctively, as opposed to deliberately; not as a means to piss off critics, but because she genuinely believes that fey people are more honest about themselves.
In The Future (I do like writing that phrase), a woman leaves her boyfriend. She moves in with an older, sleazier guy, who wears a gold chain around his neck so he can attract a certain kind of woman. He’s a creep, but she wants him – so what does that make her? She came to him because he was a sign-maker by profession. She wanted him to make a sign for her, but she couldn’t specify what it should be. Maybe he’s a sign that she needs help. The movie seems to invite us to find him creepy. But then again, he’s also the man who drew a picture that the woman’s boyfriend connected with. He’s as lonely as anyone else. So why should he be judged for trying to find fulfilment? Isn’t the omniscient cat as creepy as him?
This isn’t a movie that says what it wants to say. It’s flawed in execution, and it’s a lesser film than Miranda July’s debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know. That said – it still stays with you. It’s hard to shake the image of Hamish Linklater summoning the tide, or the little girl who literally buries herself up to her neck in her own back garden. Both these people, in the film, are putting out signals that no-one seems to hear. But it’s Miranda July who reaches out to them. She takes the little girl into her arms near the end, and she reminds her ex-boyfriend of the love he’s almost forgot. These scenes aren’t intended to be cathartic. They don’t offer us resolution. They’re there as a sign: Miranda July wants to converse.