I won't ever forget the first time I saw a film directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. I like to go to the movies alone, and at a sparsely attended weekday afternoon showing of her third feature, Goodbye First Love, I succumbed, completely, to the tender, painfully nuanced portrait of a teenage girl grappling with her first heartbreak and subsequent quest to carve out some semblance of defined personhood. Afterward, as I walked from the theater into the subway and back to my apartment, I couldn't stop chewing over the movie from all angles: how lush it was, how uncloyingly sincere it was, how carnal, how lucid. (That I was also desperately trying to rid myself of a grim patch of romantic malaise endeared me further.)
Since then, Mia has released two more films: Eden, a kinetic epic about twenty years in the life of a French house DJ floundering through the scene that gave rise to Daft Punk, inspired by her brother, Sven; and this month's Things to Come, which nabbed her, deservedly, the Best Director prize at the 2016 Berlinale. Her protagonist, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), is a high school philosophy teacher with grown children, settled into a state of security. And yet, when change arrives, it comes all at once: her seminal curriculum books are up for review, her mother takes ill and dies, and her husband suddenly leaves her for a younger woman. I've joked with my friends about Things to Come being a French Nancy Meyers movie, but that categorization is flippant and reductive. Mia's film is a highly refined excavation of a woman examining her life's work and evolving ideologies, all while negotiating the possibilities of one entity she doesn't know quite what to do with: freedom.
The day before this interview, we made a plan to chat via Skype. Due to my poor connection, I saw just one smiling image of Mia at her home in Paris, all sharp cheekbones and gently mussed hair, before the inevitable "Can you hear me? Can you see me?" back and forth led us to the phone. Mia gamely answered my questions, talking at length about her writing process, the allure of daily life, and the difficulties of reconstructing memory.
Colleen Kelsey: How did working with biography, or autobiography, help you create fiction through cinema?
Mia Hansen-Løve: It has always been like that for me. As soon as I started writing films, I wrote films that were partly biographical. Most of them are not about my own life directly, [except] Goodbye First Love, [in which] her past has to do with my own, but in my four other films, it's not about my own story. There are re-creations of stories that are partly inspired by things I've experienced, seen, and observed. It's really subjective, but real life is always in the very heart of my inspiration. It's about trying to re-create the memory, but in that quest for memory, there is a part of faithfulness, and a part of betrayal, too, because you always betray the past re-creating it.
CK: For the elements of reality that you do borrow, whether it's from your brother's life in Eden, or your mother, who was a loose model for Nathalie in Things to Come, is there ever a level of intrusion or sensitivity from the people who you source these stories from?
MH-L: Maybe it's a question you should ask them. You can't, obviously, but it's a difficult question for me to answer, because I don't know if I feel legitimate enough to say whether or not the people around me could be affected by the way I write and the things I write about. All I can say is when you talk about my brother, my mother, or friends, it's always people who I love. I think it's very determinant for me to say that I would never make a film against people or about people who I don't feel connected to. I hope that people who may have inspired characters in my films understand that. I'm lucky enough that it's people who have also a sense of creation and how difficult it is, the fact that you don't really choose about what you write, and you just do what you can.
My brother is a writer now. He just finished his first novel. He has some short stories published. My mother, she writes as well: philosophy. These are people who are involved and who know about the writing process. My brother was part of the writing process of Eden. As for my mother, she strangely was also part of the process of Things to Come, just because I had to ask her to help me with writing some of the scenes involving philosophy, and I think she enjoyed it. The teaching scenes, I could not write that. She gave me some pages, and I reworked them, and I had her read it again. I enjoyed it. Actually, because writing is such a solitary process, what I like about making films is that it's collective, but I do need to write on my own and confront that solitude.
CK: Your films in general, but especially Eden and Things to Come, grapple with time and the characters' ongoing relationship with their passions or their vocation. Why do you think that this has been such an interest of yours?
MH-L: I guess it reflects where I am, or where I was at that point. Things to Come, I wrote that film while I was looking for the money for Eden. Even though these films look very different and almost opposite in some ways, I think they have deep connections. Eden is about youth, partying, having fun, and at the end, it's a very melancholic film, but it's still about that energy you have when you are twenty and the world seems very open. You meet a lot of different experiences, and you are very much aware about how free you are. You can lose a lot of time in that, but it's a beautiful way of losing time, whereas Things to Come is about a moment in life where things seem much more closed for women. It's almost the reverse when you are in your 50s, left alone by your husband, and [you've] lost your job, [you're thinking about] how difficult it is to believe in the future, really.
I don't think it's by accident that I wrote the films practically at the same time. I think it's because I was somehow scared about what Things to Come was about, because it's about a woman's condition. It's a topic that I thought was very dark — even though now I know the film seems almost like [the] more funny film compared to the others [I've done]. For me it was a very dark subject, and it was going to be a very dark film.
I think the passing of time is very scary. You cannot resist that, you cannot fight against it. It's like a big river, time, and it's just more powerful than we are. Once you've accepted that movement and the fact that you cannot swim against it, you can find some pleasure. You can actually reinvent freedom, and find some fulfillment in that movement. I think my films are really about it. That's why at the end of Things to Come, when she's with [her grandchild] and she seems more peaceful, it doesn't mean the moral of the film would be that it's good to be a grandmother, it's just that it doesn't mean that she can't have a new life, or fall in love again. At some point, you have to embrace destiny, just because you can't avoid it.
CK: Nathalie has almost too much freedom. She doesn't know what to do with it.
MH-L: I think freedom is a very difficult thing. At some point she sees this void, because everybody left. The husband left, the mother. It's like this empty slot. It's really about this brutal solitude. Either you despair about it, and she could commit suicide or just be totally depressed, or there is something in you, an inner strength, that makes you still carry on and go through that. The film is really about the mystery of that strength, and I think it's a strength that I observed in my mother, but not only in her, in some other women confronted by solitude, aging, cruelty of life. I saw this woman finding herself. I think when you have that, you have everything, because you don't depend on others, on material things. It doesn't necessarily come from a relationship with a man. I think it's very crucial in my film that the film doesn't put her in the arms of a new man. That doesn't mean that it can't happen, but there is really this idea that she needs first to find an inner joy inside her.
CK: Was it a challenge to find and craft the voice of an older woman with a full life experience?
MH-L: When I start writing a film, it means I somehow have the character in me. Otherwise, I wouldn't write it. If I don't have the character in me somehow, and this character can be a woman, a man, a very different character ... it's not necessarily somebody who is close to me in their personality, but I have to have some connection with that character. In the case of Nathalie, she's obviously close to my mother, some aspects of her personality, like her energy, her humor, her irony, the fact that she's very proud. It doesn't mean that she's tough and doesn't have feelings, but the fact that she keeps it for her and that she lives through books, through ideas, and through her relationship to students. That's things that I've seen in my mother, and other women, too, actually, an energy that I witnessed. I saw that in other wiser women, and I want to get closer to that. It's a way to try to become wiser myself. Sometimes people tell me, "Oh, how come at your age you're so wise or mature?" I'm not at all. I'm super scared. I'm terrified. I guess making the film is the reverse reason. It's a way for me to try to understand, and try to become more peaceful.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Colleen Kelsey is a writer and the associate editor of Interview. She lives in New York City.