It could be said that an introduction to Mia Hansen-Løve is entirely beside the point, given the extent to which her films concern herself and loved ones. Following the portrait of her brother, Eden, she’s centered her fifth feature on her mother. The film is Things to Come, and the woman at its front is Isabelle Huppert — in one of her best performances, which I discussed with the actress here.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Hansen-Løve at this year’s New York Film Festival. The discussion we had two years prior remains one of my favorites, and the consistent ebb and flow between features means this was, in certain ways, a picking-up of where we left off in the fall of 2014. But you don’t have to know her work to find this an engaging read on the nature of art-as-introspection.
The Film Stage: When this movie was in development, it was known only by its French title, which, here, translates to The Future. Its actual English-language title, however, is Things to Come. Do you see a clear distinction? Do you view them in different ways?
Mia Hansen-Løve: I like the idea that, sometimes, it makes sense to have a different title in English than in French. It’s two different cultures, two different worlds, and I like the idea that, somehow, you need two different doors to get into a film, and a title is always a door — it’s the first step into a film. It’s not that different, though, because it’s not like “things to come” is the contrary of “l’avenir.” To me, it seemed a more right translation, because “l’avenir,” in French, means “the future,” but it has more of a sense of openness. “L’avenir” makes you look at the horizon, not at the chronology, whereas “the future” is a more scientific idea of what “l’avenir” is about. “What is going to be the future?” Like a science fiction movie.
So, to me, “things to come,” in its approximation and its relationship to everyday life, was actually more relevant to transmit the idea of what was in the French title, L’Avenir, than “the future.” My father has been not only a philosophy teacher, but also a translator from German to French, so I’m very interested in these questions, and I know very well, of course, that sometimes the proper word to translate is not the regular translation. Sometimes, you need to change something to be more true about the translation.
Maybe you’re aware that there is a science fiction film called Things to Come.
I know, because I checked; I had to. I haven’t seen it.
When we last talked, you said that love is maybe the only theme of your films — that all of your films are about a love of something. I have an idea of what the love in this work might center on, but I want your perspective.
The thing is very simple in Things to Come, maybe even more, than love of wisdom, love of ideas. Maybe the film would reveal that it’s actually love of life. I think that’s what, ultimately, saves the character. So there is a paradox in that film, because you could also say it’s the one film that is not about love, because it’s about a character who actually survives, or finds a way out, without falling in love again. It’s about her finding a way to live without love — without the love of a man — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a film about love.
For me, what ultimately helps her or helps her find a meaning, and not lose the desire to move on, is love of life. Which is maybe impossible to catch, more difficult to define; something more mysterious. That’s something that’s very important and very deep, and that connects us with our freedom, and I think the film is really about that quest: an inner freedom that doesn’t depend on how successful you are in your life — not only in terms of career, of course, but in terms of how much the kinds of things you can hope from life. There is this idea that once you’ve lost a lot, once there is this emptiness, you can stop being scared of that void and actually embrace it and inhabit it. Sorry if it’s very abstract or mystical. I really do think there’s something about very existential issues.
At this morning’s press conference, you said there’s a drama of the unconsciousness in your work. I wonder how you can dramatize this in a way that doesn’t feel self-conscious and is dramatically interesting — not too on-the-surface.
Years and years ago, when I was writing films, I would discuss a lot with Olivier Assayas the process of writing films, and I remember having discussions with him about that issue of unconsciousness, and the fact that he didn’t want to know too much about his inspiration and where things were coming from. That was the reason, he said, why he would never do psychoanalysis, or this kind of thing, because he wanted unconsciousness to stay unconscious, you know? Not to become self-aware.
Of course, you still have unconsciousness: even if you think you know everything, you still don’t know a lot of things. But, still, it changes the relationship you had with that if you start theorizing about your unconscious. Now I’m doing that with Things to Come, but I do that only once it’s over; I would not have done that before. But I remember this idea stayed with me: that it’s very interesting or precious or important, for the kinds of films I want to do, to stick to things as they are still all mingled and confused — as they are still a big ball of things that are… you know the things that cats like to play with?
A ball of yarn?
Yeah. When the things are still very dense and not unfurled. That makes powerful images and moments, and all that, ultimately, reveals itself, but finds its own way out through the image and to the eyes. It’s just a choice. It’s not that you can’t make a very interesting and powerful film in the other way, where you will be aware of all the reasons of the characters and the psychology. It’s just a choice to make films where you trust that — just as in life. I think it has to do with the choice of making films that give a feeling of life, and, in life, people come and say things that are not true. They say things about themselves that are wrong, and, sometimes, they actually feel the opposite of what they said and don’t know it, but, at the same time, are sincere.
That was what I was trying to say when I was talking about unconsciousness, the character of Isabelle in the film: I think, very often, in films where characters will say something about their life or themselves, there is nothing behind — there is no other dimension. Everything is in the mind. Whereas, in real life, where somebody says one thing, there is always a whole bunch of layers. It’s a lie, it’s true, there is a story behind it, and I like the idea of finding a way to tell stories where, when people talk, you still have all those layers. I guess it has to do, also, with my desire to make films that are connected with the past — that are very much in the present, but where you can feel the past. I think it has to do with that, too.
You told me about an obsession with the French writer Modiano.
Yes! It’s still the same: I’m waiting for the new one. I hope I’m not repeating myself too much. I guess I am. It’s not like you have so many things to say about your own work; at some point, you end up repeating all the same things over and over, so I’m sorry. Maybe you’ll realize it’s going to be the same interview, like three years ago.
I think we’re doing well.
But I do want to follow-up something we previously discussed. Eden is based on your brother’s life, and the main character has a sister. I asked if that was, in a way, you, and you said it could be, but it sort of isn’t. I wonder if —
Maybe I could, you know, edit a film that would be with all the characters. [Laughs] Maybe, at the end of my life — if I continue in making so many films inspired by people around me and my own life — maybe I could just reedit the film, where it will be the film about me or about my brother, but all the brothers in all the films and all the me’s in all the films. That would be fun, maybe. [Laughs] Anyway.
Huppert’s character is inspired by your mother, and she has a daughter and a son. I wonder if you draw on you and your sibling when writing those roles — which aren’t big, but nevertheless set off that bell for me.
Yeah, for sure. Partly, it’s us — and it’s not us. I tend to forget it’s even us when I start preparing the film. When I write it, I think of it; I don’t really forget that it’s partly inspired by us, by me, by people I know. But then, at some point, when I start working on the film and looking for the actors, I don’t think of that. Like, I’m not looking for an actress who would look like me, or anything like that. It becomes, really, something else. [Pause] But, yes, it’s true that there is something of us. But it’s the case in so many literary works. You know this? You have a lot of writers who made books where you would have, like, a family, and one book would show these members, and the other ones would be in the background, and then another book would put the ones in the background in the front — and, at the end, it’s like a portrait of a whole family.
At the end, there’s this idea that the oeuvre is not only the single books, but also the whole thing. You have that in Balzac, but you also have that in Salinger. Franny and Zooey: you have the brothers, and then the brothers are the main characters in some other books. So I think there is something like that — of course, on a smaller scale — in my films. Maybe I’ll do a film one day where the characters of Goodbye, First Love will show up in smaller parts in the background, with different names. Maybe not with the same names because I don’t want it to be too obvious. But I like the idea of creating a world that has its own characters, and the idea that you can meet them in any part of this world — they kind of cross their way, just like how, in the street, you can cross people you know.
Actually, I even did that in that film, because there is a shot — and it’s not placed there by accident; it’s on purpose, and that time was self-aware — with the actress from my first film, Constance Rousseau, who I really love. It’s, like, one short shot, just before the shot of Isabelle coming out of the metro and going to the cinema, and it’s a moment where Isabelle is very lonely in the film. It’s about these shots of young people who are having fun. It’s the beginning of the holidays, and she goes out, lonely, to the cinema, and I wanted to do a shot about a young girl who would kind of symbolize youth and grace. There was a cruelty about that, but it was the cruelty of life: having that shot right before Isabelle arrives and goes to the cinema. To me, it totally made sense, at that point, that it would be Constance Rousseau from All Is Forgiven. They don’t meet each other, but they are placed, edited, in a way.
I didn’t even notice.
No, of course. It’s very short. Very few people notice. Actually, somebody asked me a question about that specific shot — somebody who had been struck by that shot — without having any idea that it was the actress from my first film. It’s just a very short shot; it’s, like, three seconds. She’s standing and she holds a metal barrier from the subway. She’s in the street, and the night’s falling, and she’s very lonely and looking behind herself. It’s so short. To me, it’s like a breath of wind of my first film.
Is it the same character?
Yeah, kind of. But grown-up. It’s not her in the past; it’s her now. To me. I actually did that with Félix [de Givry], too — Félix from Eden. In the same scene, I wanted to have Félix just before, but I had to take him away because everybody would recognize him. The reason why I could leave Constance is because it was ten years ago and it was so short and it was felt in a way that people don’t recognize; it’s not disturbing. But, with Félix, it turned out to be disturbing, because Eden was made just two years ago, so people know my film. At the end of my film, in the first editing, people were saying, “Why is Félix there? You feel, suddenly, that you are in Eden. It’s very strange.” So I had to take him away.
That would complicate the —
Brother-brother thing? Yeah. I know. That would make, like, twins, or something. Or doubles. Double brothers.
I can imagine the universe folding in on itself if they ever met.
Yeah. That would be very dangerous.
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