Mia Hansen-Løve rocketed to public view as the beautiful and preternaturally sharp 17-year-old Vera carrying out a furtive affair with a much older dying novelist played by François Cluzet in Olivier Assayas's exquisite 1998 chamber piece, "Late August, Early September."
It proved a life and career-altering move. "After that experience I decided to make films, and I stopped everything else and focused on making my own films," she said during an interview at the Sundance Film festival. "I stopped my studies, stopped being a film critic and stopped acting."
The one-time protégé (and now companion) of French master Assayas ("Clouds of Sils Maria," "Carlos"), the 34-year-old Hansen-Løve has revealed in the four films she has directed a formidable and striking talent. Her autobiographically-inflected work limns the ecstasy of the tumult and youthful, often self-destructive passion. Furthermore, her films exhibit a tremendously vital and energetic stylistic fluency.
From her debut feature, "All is Forgiven," her breakthrough follow up, "Father of My Children," and the enthralling "Goodbye First Love," Hansen-Løve has mirrored her own protagonists in her audacity and frankness. In her new film, "Eden," Hansen-Løve is working on her largest canvas with with the kaleidoscopic though intimately structured exploration of the French electronic music culture.
The film spans some two decades, beginning in 1992 and moving up to the present. The filmmaker adroitly intertwines autobiography and history, effectively fictionalizing the experiences of her brother Sven, a prominent Paris-based artist who was a contemporary of the Daft Punk duo.
The two wrote the script together, and they find a perfect mix of period detail, the cultural importance of the emerging French touch sound movement and the ecstatic, sensual thrill of the underground scene. Paul (the excellent Félix de Givry), the central figure and stand-in for Sven, describes their work divided "between euphoria and melancholia.
Hansen-Løve talked about art and creativity, collaborating with her brother and the deeply personal nature of her work and and the stylistic and formal patterns present in all of her work.
All of your movies have this novelistic shape, a two- or three-part structure. The new movie is divided into two parts and it clearly draws on your brother’s life to color and deepen the material.
Mia Hansen-Løve: I don’t know why I have this thing about this two-part structure. It’s not anything that I do consciously. I think like many people, I just write the way I write. Afterwards I try to be faithful to my inspiration. There is a very certain way I want to tell a story. The choices I make have to do with a feeling of life I want to give, a quest for a certain personal or intimate truth.
I think it also has to do with the choice of telling parts and not telling others. These structures are divided into chapters, like books. I think it has to do with the fact that I like to choose some moments that even if they seem not dramatically obvious, it somehow expresses something essential. If I choose to take time to go deep inside these moments, I choose to ignore other moments that are efficient or spectacular in terms of dramaturgy.
My writing is kind of determined by this choice, an impressionist style of writing more than traditional storytelling. It’s very much in the continuity of the other films. It has to do with family, the past, the passing of time, coming of age, youth; there are many things that connect this to my previous films.
You have been very open about the deeply autobiographical nature of your work. The film is very much influenced by your brother’s experiences in the culture. How would you characterize the act of your collaboration with the script?
It was very instinctive. I wasn’t sure where I was going. The way it went, I told him about the project and I wanted him to be involved, because I thought it was very important, because he was also starting to get published as a writer, with his short stories. For the first time having somebody else, especially my brother involved in the script, I actually took care of the structure. He would not have liked to tell the story of his own life in the first person. He was okay to give me some scenes and stories as I was asking. He never asked me where I was going with it. I’d see him, or ask him about a scene and explain the context, the characters, and he’d send it to me quite fast. He had a lot of fun, went back to his memories. I think it was a way for him to reconcile with his own youth and his past. He was angry against himself, and his own story and this was a way to resolve his past with himself.
He had a great influence because of the tone of the scenes he was writing definitely influenced my own writing to a certain atmosphere that belongs to him and his world. I knew there was going to be the poem at the end. I knew it was going to end inspired by what my brother is today and the present would give the whole arc of the film. I wasn’t sure how I’d tell the things in the middle. I really enjoyed writing it, almost a physical feeling you get, when you open a door and you are not sure where you are going. You open the door, and it’s almost like “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s like a virgin world, you feel as though nobody has ever explored this world.
How long did you shoot the scenes in New York?
In New York, we shot eight or nine days. We shot three days at PS1. That was the toughest thing to do, with the real crowd. All of the interiors we really shot in New York. It was at the beginning, and we still had a lot of money to look for, and we weren’t even sure we’d be able to make the film. We started with one of the toughest parts, shooting in New York with a team we didn’t know, with very little time, little cooperation and a huge crowd. The lead actor lost 15 pounds in six days. We had a long break, and we kept looking for money. It was very tiring. The days of shooting are longer in the US, which I like a lot, because I always have a problem with ending the day.
All your movies have this dialectic between love and art, sex and creativity. Like your last film, “Goodbye First Love,” you use relationships and romantic pairings as an elliptical way to connote the passage of time.
Totally. That’s something I was aware of, and what I was interested in. That is why I was saying earlier that this is a shift, and ‘Eden’ was still a different film. One of the reasons I was saying this is all of my previous films are about fidelity. My brother happened to have a very different life and he lived in a very opposite way than me. Even though there are differences, opposite characters if I compare him to Lola Creton’s character [in “Goodbye, First Love”], who is much closer to me, it’s almost two extremes. There’s an idea of being joined in a way, and you can see the idealism and romanticism in Paul’s character. It’s not his relationship to women, but his relationship to music. The one thing he stays faithful to is the music. To me, in a way it’s what makes it impossible for him to have a stable relationship. Stability all goes to the music, or music takes up all the space. It has to do with how they live. It was something I was very intrigued by, of having a character with so many girlfriends. The passing of time is also structured like that. It’s like “La Ronde,” a constant changing from one woman to another that almost becomes tragic, bright, funny, superficial, and you can also look at it as an expression of melancholy.
Your cinematographer, Denis Lenoir, has been a formative visual influence through his work with Olivier Assayas. So much of the visual excitement of your film is captured in movement and speed, the velvet textures of the night.
I’ve known Denis since we made “Late August, Early September.” Of course we had some strong connections with the film, and the work he’s done on Olivier’s films and the friendship they had for a long time. I love his work. He liked my films very much and he expressed a desire to work with me. At some point I felt this was the right film to do [together]. This is a film about young people, energy and youth. I could have worked with a young or debuting [director of photography]. Somehow I thought it was more interesting to work with somebody who had a lot of career behind him, a lot of experience and they could bring something else to the film. We were shooting in clubs, day after day. I felt somehow, in an interesting way, Denis was the most rock and roll [cinematographer] I could have. It really was the case.
Was it liberating to work in digital?
With this film we were ambitious, and we wanted to reach. I wanted to work with very few lights and be smart about the lighting. The idea was that for each scene, in the nightclubs, we wanted a kind of sophistication. Denis really offered to me the chance to get that sophistication, but also be very quick. Denis really likes shooting digital. Apart from ‘Carlos,’ he has only been making films digitally for years. He helped me feel more confident about it. For the night scenes, we needed to be extremely quick and also to be free, the freedom to have long shots, the middle of the crowd and move very freely. We only used the light available from each of the clubs. We worked on recreating the specific lighting of each club, use the evolution of the lighting as one of the ways to transmit the atmosphere of the club, but also speak about the passing of time. We could film these lights because they were part of the sets. We both agreed on not being afraid of darkness. I wasn’t worried if we couldn’t see their faces or the actors’ eyes. Because we used only this lighting, we could move so freely. We could shoot eight hours without stopping.
A lot of scenes evoke probably the most celebrated collaboration of Olivier Assayas and Denis Lenoir, the incredible party outside the abandoned chateau in “Cold Water.”
It’s funny that you mentioned “Cold Water,” because I do feel I have a dialogue with Olivier’s films. I see it afterwards. It interests me in a way, after the film is over to realize the connections. With “Eden,” the direct connection is not “Cold Water,” but “Something in the Air,” but that film is organically connected to “Cold Water.” When I saw “Something in the Air,” it made me want to do my own film about my generation. It made me wonder what was defining for my generation if not the politics. We are the children of the people of May 1968. It made me feel suddenly, for the first time since I was making films, to ask myself if I made my own film about my generation, what would it be. What’s left, or what do we have? We have the music. That was really obvious. For me, making the film was really a way of exploring that and figuring out what does that mean.
On the basis of your part in ‘Late August, Early September,’ I thought you were going to be a major actress. Do you miss acting?
I don’t think I had any chance of being a major actress, but thank you for saying it. When I was in that film that was the one time when I really enjoyed acting. When you start and you’re not conscious about yourself, there was something I enjoyed behind words. With the distance, it was acting, but it was also being on a set and studying movies and looking at Olivier and seeing how he was working and discovering the power of fiction.
It’s crazy when I look back at that time. When I went to the casting for that film, it’s not like I went there to become an actress. I went there almost by accident. I did theater at school. I went there. I knew there was something about my destiny I was facing, and I knew I needed to get this. It never happened to me later because I didn’t really need it in a way. It’s true this experience has been totally defining for me. I can still feel the affects in my writing, even in my relationship to actors. It’s as if I was born there, a second birth. It’s crazy because it was just a couple of days of shooting, but they were so powerful, traumatizing in a good way.