Originally published on Film4 / Medium.
Can you separate a person from their art? Or is it imperative to know the mind behind the matter? And if so, where do you start? Here are eight entry points for exploring the work of…
…philosophical filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve.
Atmosphere and place are important to Hansen-Løve as a filmmaker.
During an interview for Seventh Art, she speaks about places having a soul and a reliance on, or alliance with place providing a framework for her narratives. “I don’t even know what’s going to be in the scenes, I just know I want them to be here, and it gives me a frame, and inside that I feel totally free. And I feel also confident that once they are put together it will make the story — I don’t need to ‘tell’ the story, that the story is being told from itself by following the different moments in different locations.”
She has also cited Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumière as an ongoing inspiration. When selecting the film to show at a series for the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, she wrote “the wonder that I felt while viewing this film is expressed in its evocative title: the poetry of places, the staging of light. Simplicity, clarity, and openness define a point of view that I can relate to, from across oceans and cultures.”
Her films often grapple with existential questions.
Which makes sense when you consider that both her parents were philosophy teachers. During an interview with Film at Lincoln Center, she commented that her “films are portraits of people who are looking for a meaning to their existence. The question of what gives sense to our lives is one that obsesses me, I always come back to it.”
It was an upbringing for which she is grateful, later in the same interview expressing her fortune at being “raised under the idea that we must seek beauty and good, to value the importance of love and be faithful to it, without necessarily having the answers to those questions. I was raised with the idea that what’s important in life is not to earn more money and to be in a particular place in the social scale, but to strive for truth and beauty. My parents chose a path of intellectual and spiritual questions, which isn’t a particularly easy one and doesn’t necessarily constitute the best model. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but what they have passed on to me is to assume and to put these questions at the centre of my existence.”
In Things To Come, Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy teacher, which was important to Hansen-Løve for two reasons. “Even though there are films of course that I love, that depict intellectuals, I felt there was not really a film that would show it just the way it was for me. So it was like a challenge: Make it more relevant, more authentic. And the fact that it’s a woman, of course is important. Because I’m not sure there are so many women philosophy teachers in films.”
There is an autobiographical undercurrent to her films.
It’s well-known that Paul, the DJ-ing protagonist of her club culture drama Eden is based closely on her brother Sven Hansen-Løve, himself a former DJ, who also co-wrote the film with her. She has also turned the lens on herself, with 2012’s Goodbye First Love exploring her own ill-fated teenage romance. She sees this impulse as a way to “to harvest [her] own memories. With all my films, with all their weakness, they are true testimonies of who I was and what my concerns were.”
She finds her characters in everyday moments.
Some directors like to flesh out entire biographies for their characters before shooting a film, and can be strict about making sure everyone is on the same page. Quentin Tarantino reportedly fired an extra for not knowing his character’s backstory on the set of Inglorious Basterds, for instance. Hansen-Løve takes a different stance, preferring instead to focus on the micro, rather than the macro.
“I don’t really believe in psychological explanations. I always had a hard time believing that knowing a lot of things about a character would help an actor play it better. I’ve always believed, and this is the experience I’ve had with the actors I’ve worked with, that the truth of the characters is to be found in the concrete things of the everyday — in the way they talk, in their rhythm, in the way they move — rather than in the information on their resume.”
Choosing a subject matter often comes down to her emotional strength.
It’s an often heard refrain in the filmmaking world that whatever project you choose next has to be something you can live with. Imagine being quarantined with your protagonist — that is the level of intimacy and investment required of writers and directors in bringing their stories to life. Likewise, Hansen-Løve has acknowledged that whatever her film is about, it affects her.
“If it’s sad, it makes you sad. I’m really like a child with that, and I guess many artists are. You’ve got to live with it for the two next years, you’ve got to talk about it, it’s going to be part of your life. It exists in the most real way. So when I start working on a film I’ve got to be sure I’m strong enough, that I have what I need in order to face whatever the film is about.”
She is partnered to fellow film director Olivier Assayas.
She acted in two of his films Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies, before transitioning to a career as a director, which she considers as something of a deliverance. “I feel like becoming a filmmaker kind of saved my life. [It] was a way to transform brutal melancholy into active melancholy.”
She also credits Assayas with introducing a certain element of risk, or daring to her work. “His influence comes through in many ways, but one of them is opening myself up to trying so much. In terms of production, storytelling, he experiments in many different directions. Watching him being so daring helped me a lot to be daring.”
He is also the first person to whom she shows her scripts. “From my first film, he was always the one I gave the script to and showed the first edit. He never shows up during shooting and I never show up during the shooting of his films. But then, when I edit, I could not show the film to anybody before I show it to him.”
Her acting career is not something she likes to talk about.
No doubt Hansen-Løve would object to it even being called a career. But her experience, however picayune has allowed her a certain amount of empathy or intuition when it comes to directing actors.
“My experience as an actor is really so small that I feel almost ashamed to comment on it. I went to theatre school for a few years and I’ve had only small parts in a few films, so I feel I don’t have the legitimacy to speak to being a former actress. That said, having physically embodied a character and having learned what is natural and what is not has helped me to have an instinctive relationship to the actors. I’d never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do myself, and I never feel like I’m on the other side from them.”
Her editing choices could be summed up as ‘arriving late to the party’.
Hansen-Løve has worked with the same editor — Marion Monnier — for all of her films (Monnier also collaborates closely with Assayas, having edited Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria) and together they have developed a consistent way of working.
On their partnership, Hansen-Løve has said “my editor and I were very keen on trying to edit films so that when we get into the scene, it feels like the scene had already started. And when we get out of the scene, it feels like we have not let the scene end. It has to do with this idea of having the film literally jump into a scene. There is an expression in French, which actually François Truffaut said about films, which is ‘prendre un train en marche’. It means ‘go on a train while the train is already moving’. And that’s how I try to write and edit my films. To always be jumping in a train that’s already moving.”
Her aesthetic could be described as a ‘cinema of freedom.’
When it comes to directing Hansen-Løve has stated a preference for a discrete style that’s almost transparent, “not calling attention to itself…A cinema that is free in the sense that it gets rid of the intentions that films are often charged with.” But more so than just an aesthetic raison d’être, freedom is a topic that her films consistently grapple with. In an interview for Lenny Letter, Hansen-Løve spoke about this recurrence:
“I think the passing of time is very scary. You cannot resist that, you cannot fight against it. It’s like a big river, time, and it’s just more powerful than we are. Once you’ve accepted that movement and the fact that you cannot swim against it, you can find some pleasure. You can actually reinvent freedom, and find some fulfilment in that movement. I think my films are really about it.”