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French Filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve On Desire And Pain

Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images.
The first thing Mia Hansen-Løve will tell you upon entering the room is that her English is not very good. The acclaimed French filmmaker is being a bit modest – her English is excellent. But with five features under her belt, her ability – both in conversation and in her films – to simply communicate complex ideas is even better.
This was once again self-evident in Hansen-Løve’s latest film, Things to Come, a semi-autobiographical portrait of a spiralling philosophy teacher, Nathalie (played by Isabelle Huppert), trying to regain footing upon the discovery that her husband of many years is leaving her for another woman. The film is alternately essayistic and potent, a snapshot of a woman putting the puzzle pieces of her life back together.

“This idea of existential loneliness,” Hansen-Løve says, “was so crucial for me [to portray] in the film – the fact that we are lost.” Hansen-Løve, the daughter of two philosophy lecturers, is wonderfully candid on this idea. She believes there are two sides to this loneliness: On the one hand, there are too many signs of god to not believe,” and on the other, “not enough signs to actually believe, and we are caught in the middle.”

The characters in Things to Come grapple with these questions of theology with intelligence and curiosity. Such a theme is commonplace for Hansen-Løve, who has a tendency to populate her movies with erudite youth – like the wayward musicians of Eden, the young lovers of Goodbye First Love, and the estranged daughter of Tout est pardonné. All assemblages of wonderfully engaged, thoughtful, and sometimes knowingly pretentious kids figuring out their place in life.

As inventive as they feel, the milieus of Hansen-Løve’s films are often grounded more in personal experience than imaginative fiction. Eden, for example, which starred Greta Gerwig and Félix de Givry, is based on the experiences of Løve’s brother, the DJ Sven Hansen Løve. Things to Come also draws on the filmmaker’s family life; the rigid, bookish father played by André Marcon, and the playful mother (Huppert) entrenched in ideas and conversation.

“He wasn’t only a philosophy teacher, he was also a translator,” Hansen-Løve says of her father. “He translated German philosophy and literature, but he was really living in his books. My mother was the more exuberant, talkative one.” She speaks of her upbringing in Paris fondly; “I always enjoyed the way my mother included philosophy in our everyday life.”

Things to Come is slightly less optimistic, analysing our tendency, as humans, to lose the desire for life – the desire for ideas, people and love. In the wake of her tumultuous divorce, Nathalie (Huppert) is constantly combating the calcification of her desires. She does so by leaving behind her home – replete with memories of her crumbling marriage – and spending time with kids less than twice her age.

In talking about the headspace of Nathalie – and her mother – Hansen-Løve believes, “When you’re in love with somebody, the hope is enough to nourish you even if the love doesn’t happen.” Her vulnerability on the topic is palpable; “The imagination feeds you, and you can go on existing with the hope, even without the fulfillment of the love. It’s about sublimation.”
Both in conversing with Hansen-Løve and watching Things to Come, this philosophical ping-ponging between beliefs, principles, and conceits is stimulating. So much so that at a certain point, the film develops what Hansen-Løve calls its own “unconscious.” For her, creating uninhibited art like this “is really nice because you have this feeling you’ve lost control but in a good way.” She continues, “I think the film is really about finding yourself after losing yourself. The fact that it’s necessary to confront the void to lose yourself in order to find yourself.”

But after helming five feature films, does Hansen-Løve still feel lost herself? “I feel less lost,” she admits. “I feel like the worst moment of my life until now was really when I was an adolescent: 15, 17, 19.” During those days, she says, her life revolved around “suffering and pain and huge anxieties and obsession with the passing of time”.

Luckily, she has her angst-ridden teen years to thank for leading her to working first in front of the camera, as an actress in the films Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies, both directed by Olivier Assayas (now her husband) as well as behind the camera. It was here, as a filmmaker, that she found refuge. “I feel like becoming a filmmaker kind of saved my life,” she says with a sigh of relief. “For me, making films was a way to transform brutal melancholy into active melancholy.”
That transformation – “from brutal melancholy into active melancholy”– is essentially Hansen-Løve’s present day modus-operandi. Her films are still tinged by sadness. They contain pain, but they aren’t asphyxiated by it. She’s not running away from what hurts, either. “Its part of me. Its part of my family and my background.” She acknowledges where she’s come from to understand where she’s going. I think that’s something called maturity.

Before we leave, Hansen-Løve loudly exhales, then smiles. She was about to lay down for a quick nap before attending a special screening of Things to Come in Toronto. Before all future events unfurl, she offers some parting advice: “What I learned from life is that you can’t get rid of melancholy or of pain. It’s not even worth trying, but you can do something with it.”