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 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 there’s 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.
The theater scene is so interesting. I almost feel like half of this interview could just be devoted to that.
[Laughs] I don’t know about that.
Maybe I’m just crazy enough.
Me, too. Maybe I’m just crazy not to speak about it for an hour.
Certified Copy doesn’t seem like a movie you just pluck out of nowhere, especially since that’s a movie about a woman with an intellectual background.
You know… my mother used to identify with Isabelle Huppert in the films. Like, she always said that she was the actress that she would identify with. I think a lot of intellectuals, because Isabelle inhabits both femininity in a smart way — she’s beautiful, she’s feminine — but she’s also very intelligent, so she represents some kind of ideal, I think, for the kind of person my mother has been. Also, she represents some modernity. For many reasons, my mother always identified with her, so she would see films where Isabelle was. So I guess, unconsciously — because, in that case, it was unconscious — for me, it made sense that Isabelle would see a film with a character that she would identify, too, as well! But it cannot be herself, obviously, because that would also destroy the film! You know? So it had to be another actress that she can identify.
But Isabelle, as an actress, cannot identify to any other French actress, because she’s too famous, so it would be only her rival. So I guess there was something a little perverse, to me, to have her watch Juliette Binoche. But, at the same time, it made sense — it made sense from the point of view of the character that she would watch a woman that would be the kind of woman she would identify! Do you know what I mean? [Laughs] So there is that, maybe, but also, in the more simple way, the fact that the film was released at that date. I’m very specific — as you know, because we talked about Modiano, about the dates — and it’s very important, for me, that it’s true about the film: when it was released, that it was possible that she would watch that film at that time period. I guess I checked all the films that were released at that time, and I wanted her to see the kind of film that she would see.
I think Kiarostami, for that kind of figure — a philosophy teacher in Paris who has left ideas but not too much left, you know? — that’s typically the kind of film she would watch at that place. Exactly. It just seemed right to me. Actually, that’s not my favorite film of Kiarostami at all. I’m a big admirer of Kiarostami, and I haven’t seen all of his films — not at all — but I saw that film, and that’s not my favorite. But it just made sense that she would see that one. And it’s also a sad film about a couple, of course. I’m actually offering a… oh, I shouldn’t say that. [Covers face with napkin] Sorry. I’m still in the process, so I am not allowed to talk about it.
By the time this is published, it might already be settled. Anyway, the cutting back and forth between them is almost like the French-actress version of Pacino and De Niro in Heat. I don’t know if you’re aware how, for a long time, they were these two ships passing in the night —
You know that Heat is, like, one of my favorite films, yeah? I told you?
I don’t think you did, no.
Oh, yeah. I’m telling you. It’s like, I’m obsessed with Heat. I don’t even want to talk about it now, because I’ve been talking too much about it. It’s like Modiano; it’s my other Modiano. Heat, and especially… well, not especially that scene, but, of course, that scene where De Niro and Al Pacino meet with the coffee is very essential in the film.
This is like your version of that.
That’s my version of Heat. Like, all of my films are my versions of Heat, I think. [Laughs] No, because Heat is actually a film about melancholy, about action, and it’s action vs. melancholy and self-destruction — action becoming self-destruction. It’s a couple. It’s a lot of things. It’s a father and kid’s relationship. A lot of the themes of Heat, actually, are themes of my films, except in a very different way, in a very different world. But I’m sure that if I see it again today, maybe I will find it a little bit more kitsch or something — but I’m sure that I would still love it as much.
When did you last see it?
Long ago, but not that long ago. I saw it many times, so I think it would be okay to watch it again.
I’m wondering if this movie is consciously set in 2010?
I don’t know if it’s 2010 or 2011; 2010, maybe. It has to do with the political situation at that time.
I’m so ignorant of these things that I thought the strike sequences were just something you scripted for dramatic and thematic purpose.
No. No, no, no. Part of what inspired me.. there were strikes — well, okay, there is always strikes in France, but they were very violent strikes — I think, in 2010, and I wanted to use that in the film because I wanted the political situation to be very palpable and part of the world, and kind of put disorder in the film, somehow. I thought I had to use something real, and people in France know the situations. It’s a very recent history, so it had to be true, so I had to make the film belong to a specific time. For some reasons, I didn’t imagine the film being set under the presidency of Hollande; it had to be under Sarkozy. A very tough… still, now it’s very depressing in France, but in a different way. Under Sarkozy there was really, like, a tension. It was a different tension and a different mood, and it influenced my film.
As you know, because I’m sure I told you that before, I like to have the films set in very precise, specific time periods and underline that, just as the places. So once I decide when the film is set and where, I’m very keen on putting that in the film, somehow, so people know — just as they have to know what books in that film they are reading, which papers, and where they are going. I don’t like to do, as in so many films, where everything is, like, any mountain, any paper, where you don’t see anything precise because people think it wouldn’t be universal if the world where the characters live in was depicted in a too-specific way, so there’s this idea that, except if it’s a film about a historical event or something — if it’s about feelings and a couple — it has to be very stereotyped. I always, in my own films, fight against this idea.
Things to Come’s final scene strikes me as happy, but Eden’s ending, for instance, stayed with me so long because I really wasn’t sure where you’d left that character. Do you think about this distinction when writing?
I never tell myself, “I want the ending to be happy,” you know? I want it to be just true. So the question, for me, is, “What is right?” I want it to be right. Whether it would be positive, negative, depressing, or uplifting… it just has to be right. But it’s true that, when I wrote this film, I was kind of afraid of where it was going. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know what the way out could be for the character, and I was afraid there would be, like, a wall at the end of the tunnel. You know what I mean? And it would be a dead end. I didn’t want a dead end.
I was looking for the way out, and, somehow, this ending… in a very simple way, because nothing special happens. It’s not like she meets somebody. There is a baby, but of course there is a baby: I mean, she has two kids. There could not be a baby, but there is a baby. Maybe that’s not enough to make it a happy ending, but, if there is a happy ending, I think it has to do more with what happens. I think it has to do with the way I look at her, and the mood of the film. It’s really her mood that changes, and the perspective I have on the film actually comes from the perspective that she has on her own life and the way we feel she moves in her own life: a peaceful mood. So there is some kind of peace at the end — which doesn’t mean that life is over and nothing more will happen and that she’s about to die. It’s just about peace.
Things to Come begins its U.S. release on Friday, December 2.