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Mia Hansen-Løve on ‘Maya,’ Michael Mann, Eroticism Through Distance, and ‘Bergman Island’

Written by on March 6, 2019 

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya marks a gemstone in this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema. Though her latest film is still without release in the U.S., the writer-director’s reputation is so set amongst American cinephiles that it could hardly be another way: each marks a cause-celebre-of-sorts with a crowd who’ve come to expect complex, carefully delineated emotional wavelengths and rigorous-but-unobtrustive visual style. Maya has much of that, but a more severe focus on trauma, physical danger, and its slow drive through the (otherwise beautiful) Indian countryside has, for many, make it a tad more difficult to adore.

Hansen-Løve is nevertheless clear-headed in elaborating on her choices and psychological path through Maya. To interview her–and, I hope, to read this interview–is to experience an expansion of her cinema’s emotional current. And, of course, I had to ask about Michael Mann.

The Film Stage: When we last talked, you said something that caught fire with many people I know — all of your films are your version of Michael Mann’s Heat.

Mia Hansen-Løve: Did I say that?

Because it’s “a film about melancholy, about action, and it’s action vs. melancholy and self-destruction — action becoming self-destruction.” Potentially a stupid question, but I do have to wonder if there are any ways Heat and Maya could be seen as kindred spirits.

Heat is just part of me so I don’t have to think about it. [Laughs] It’s just there. I usually don’t think of a film when I write a film of mine; I would rather try to escape. If I do think of a film, it would be more something annoying to me, because I try to find my own grammar and language since my very first film. I try to make my films without being stuck in references. But Heat is certainly there as part of my world. There is a special emotion for me connected to Heat that, I guess, will always be following me. But maybe it doesn’t have to do with the film itself; maybe it has to do with the age I had when I saw it. I was 16, I think, and there was some connection between me–some, how do you say it, “caught fire”?

It got people’s attention.

Heat did that to me when I was 16. I think it had to do with becoming myself at this point. I was in the middle of this process and Heat, somehow, surprisingly enough–because it comes from a faraway place–all it was dealing with made a very strong impression that would go on for years. Fortunately, it’s not like I’m obsessed with Heat to the point where I’m making my films like that; I think it would be really bad. But this determination, this kind of melancholy, this way of being constrained and renouncing love–he falls in love but doesn’t want this to happen because it doesn’t work with his own vocation, his destiny–my film is really about that: vocation, the need for action. Even if you think you’re going to stop it, you’ll still go back there. And it’s not because it’s inspired by Heat; it’s because it’s part of me that Heat meant so much to me. Because I think I have that in myself: these kinds of obsessions, being divided between one love and one passion. It structured me, somehow. I think that’s why Heat really blew my mind.

Well, you are flexing some new muscles here. One is the presence of physical danger: there’s a chase sequence that culminates with a blade being drawn, to say nothing of its character being a former hostage. Does that require a new mindset, something distinct to draw upon to make your film dramatically feasible?

There was not, like, a decision from me to put that in the script; it just happened to be there. I think it has to do with the story itself. The story led me to write this, and the character. I think it may also have to do with Roman Kolinka himself: I think Roman would have been great in a film by Jean-Pierre Melville. Roman, to me, is some kind of Bressonian Alain Delon–that’s the way I see him. He’s very restrained. He’s very charismatic and handsome but, at the same time, he has this innocence and unawareness that non-professionals have. There is something about his presence that reminds me a lot of the actors of Melville–a director who I love and could connect with Michael Mann’s Heat, too. It’s not like the films I do at all, but I have this attraction for the cinema of Melville and dark movies, action movies–like Michael Mann’s first feature, Thief. It’s also part of my world as a filmmaker.

It contributes to a sexual tension running through Maya, and I love how its, let’s say, solution is passionate but distant. You’re expecting something to happen, yet its occurrence is still a surprise. Talk to me about the framing of that sequence.

I think it has to do with my own language–the way I look at things in general, not only a love scene. My trying to escape certain conventions and how those kinds of scenes are usually filmed. Maybe what I think would have been a more conventional way of filming it would have been to be more handheld and follow the gestures very closely and make more shots, maybe make it more edited. There are only two shots, I think–one outside and one inside; maybe three, but not more–and it’s very simple, a little bit restrained. This distance, on the one hand, has to do with formal choices of mine–my own grammar as a director–but somehow it also has to do with eroticism: for me, there is something erotic about that. I guess each director has his own perception or definition of eroticism, but somehow I find it more erotic that way than if I was trying to make it more obviously erotic–you know, underlining everything.

The opening shot exemplifies much of this. Is it a real hotel room?

It is.

Is that selected for aesthetic reasons, or are you working with what you can and then adapting? And if it’s the latter, how do you, in fact, adapt?

So it was shot in Jordania, and it was shot there… yes, I had a very precise idea of what I wanted, and I looked for a place that was according to my idea. But then, of course, it never… I don’t shoot in-studio, so if I wanted it to be exactly how I imagined, then I also had to adapt at the end. But I enjoy this idea. I think I enjoy dealing with both: having a preconceived idea–sometimes not so precise, but most of the time very precise–and looking for the place that actually fits with your idea. Then you can find the best place that fits, approximately–it’s always approximate–and then you have to reinvent or change something to fit to this new place. While you do this you actually get to, maybe, an even more interesting level. This difference of what you had imagined and the fact you had to adapt actually leads you to another place that is even more interesting, I think.

What I mean is that, even in this scene, yes, I was looking for a place where I could film him on the mirror and leave the camera outside. On the first shot I’m outside. He’s in the mirror. We see him naked, but he’s at a distance. To me, this scene was very important because it had to be very frontal, straightforward–we see him naked, we follow, there are no words, but we understand what he is doing; it’s a very simple, everyday action, but I had to film it in a straight, frontal way. At the same time, keeping this distance was very important to me because he’s just been relieved. The first thing hostages do when getting freed is being offered by secret services to take a shower. So it’s basically the first time they have a moment to find themselves and their intimacy again. I would have found it in bad taste, an intrusion, to be in the shower or bathroom with him. It’s almost like a little manifesto for the film to say, “That’s where I am. I look at him frontally, but I don’t go inside with him.” You know what I mean?

Absolutely.

So that was a way for me to define what’s going to be in my point-of-view for the whole story afterwards.

You don’t often have nudity in your films, at least for a protagonist. Do you think seeing them in that intimate, quite literally naked state could change an audience’s relationship?

He’s nude and, at the same time… what the film really is about is this guy finding himself. Which means, also, finding his body again. Yes, he’s naked, but it’s a wounded body and a wounded mind, and we will realize that very soon. So he’s naked but, at the same time, he’s a ghost–not really himself anymore. It’s not because he’s naked that it’s not really him, but it’s the presence, this wounded body. I insist because I think it’s the distance that respects his intimacy somehow, and what the film is about is getting closer to him as he’s getting back himself. You know what I mean?

I’m impressed by the presence of a hostage psychologist or your explanation of how and why he’s in this hotel; those are not typical dramatic linchpins. How much do you research these components, and how do findings shape what’s eventually onscreen?

I would say there was two moments: the moment where I did the minimum of research in order to write. Otherwise I would have been handicapped to write, but I did as few as possible because I didn’t want it to affect too much my writing or perception of the character, and then I had written the entire film. Once I had written it, I documented more and met two war reporters. Both were young, which was interesting. One had never been a hostage, and one had been for four months. That’s his experience that really inspired the story the most, even though we don’t know much about it–but I knew. Even if it’s not in the film, it’s important for me that I knew.

I also had a psychiatrist who works with former hostages and people who have been traumatized during terrorist attacks. So I had two of these guys reading the scenes. I would rather do the first draft and prefer to be ignorant–know enough to write, but not too much, because I’m not doing a documentary on PTSD. That’s not the point. I start with a very common situation–PTSD–but it leads me somewhere else, to the unknown, and I want to keep my freedom. It’s two different moments.

Things to Come was set in 2010 to match then-ongoing student strikes, which makes sense. But Maya begins in December of 2012, and I couldn’t grasp why this has a specific period attached to it.

That’s when all the guys were taking hostages. It’s the beginning of the war, when they were not yet aware of how dangerous it was–they knew, but not how much. That’s when there were a lot of war reporters taken hostage. Of course, you still have somebody who went down, but a lot of journalists stopped going there, the papers would stop sending them there, or they would make sure that couldn’t happen. In the beginning, there were a lot of stories like that. I wanted to be very precise about the story, and I got, again, inspired by this war reporter who was a hostage at that time. It wasn’t going to be the same thing if it was in 2015 or 2016. Also, I like putting my film in some specific moment–it’s like a diary of my filmmaking.

Excepting, maybe, Father of My Children, all of your films are in some past tense.

Usually it’s in “recent past,” is the thing. [Laughs] I know a lot of directors try to avoid references to the time when the film happened to make them more timeless or universal, but for me it’s the reverse; maybe it’s because I don’t have a diary. My films are my ways to deal with my own life, even if it can be very indirect or secretive. But I like that they will all have a precise date. Some people will just write in their diary, “5th of March, I did this-or-that.” It’s the same–except I make a film itself.

You’re soon to finish shooting Bergman Island.

I shot half of it, and I’ll shoot the second half in June.

Do you think the process of quickly going from this film to that could affect it? Or even taking time to do press and focus, however briefly, on Maya again?

I think the films certainly speak to each other–at least because they were both shot outside of my home. I mean, far away from home, my country. Even if Sweden is closer to Paris than India, in a way they are as far from my place. And they were both attempts to escape something. [Laughs] So I think they have a lot in common, but they are extremely different, so there was something a little schizophrenic–which I enjoyed, partly, I think, in this thing of going back-and-forth between Sweden and India in the last three years. I felt a little bit crazy doing that, but I think I kind of enjoyed this craziness.

Maya screens at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema on March 6 & 7.


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