Mia Hansen-Løve tells us about her interest in people who stay in the shadows, her motivations behind choosing locations, the way she works with her actors, and much more. The film premiered at TIFF, where we talked to Hansen-Løve, and is screening at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in NYC.
At first glance, the films of Mia Hansen-Løve appear open to an almost frightening degree, with very little to guide us. Few signs are there to tell us who the characters are, what they want, or where they are going. Typically shy and reserved, they’d be the last to talk about themselves, and they are often going through some kind of traumatic change. But as Hansen-Løve follows them, their everyday gestures, habits, and decisions gradually paint, with small touches, a picture of who they are — of their pain, but also of their strength. The director thus brings us to understand and empathise with her characters with subtlety and honesty, never resorting to emotional manipulation of any kind and never forcing our tears.
The same is true in Maya, Hansen-Løve’s latest film. Here, however, this process of empathy meets a more difficult obstacle in the lead, Gabriel (Roman Kolinka, who also starred in Things to Come). A French war reporter who just spent months in Syria as a hostage, the now freed man refuses to simply stay at home, and goes on a solo trip to India. The beauty of the country, the vast expanses of forests, and the small villages where nobody knows who he is, seem to do him good — though just how he is hurting remains almost a complete mystery.
One could perceive his objectionable relationship with the eponymous Maya (Aarshi Banerjee), an eighteen-year-old local girl, as a symptom of that pain. In our interview, Hansen-Løve explains that she doesn’t judge her characters, and it is true that they all have their reasons for doing the things they do. Whether that is enough to make us feel for Gabriel is another matter.
Though I wasn’t a fan of the film, it led to a great conversation with Hansen-Løve about the impulses that animate her filmmaking more generally. She told me about her interest in people who stay in the shadows, her motivations behind choosing locations, the way she works with her actors, and much more.
Seventh Row (7R): Watching Maya helped me understand a theme that I think runs through several of your films. Your characters have often gone through a change that is more or less radical, and every time, we expect them to adjust to those changes in a certain way. For example, in Things to Come, the lead is a woman in her sixties who recently went through a divorce, and society expects her to react a certain way. In Eden, we expect the protagonist of the film to become a successful DJ like the band Daft Punk. In Maya, we expect this journalist who was a hostage in a dangerous area to react in a specific way, as well.
Mia Hansen-Løve (MHL): It’s not completely conscious on my part. The choices I make regarding my characters and the way they express what they are have a lot to do with what I am… It’s only afterwards that I theorise about them or try to rationalise them. When I hear what people tell me about the films, I try to understand. But I write in a very instinctual manner, so I don’t necessarily realise as I write that, for example, the behaviours of my characters are surprising.
I think something that has always been at work in my films is the desire to speak of characters where I feel like if I don’t do it, no one will. When I made my first film, All Is Forgiven (2007), which was centred on a rather sombre and self-destructive character, it was really a character from the shadows. The producer in my second film, Father of my Children (2009), was also someone who’s in the shadows — usually we show the filmmakers, not the producers. I feel like I have a bit of a reflex like that, in the way I write and in the way I approach cinema, where I want to turn the camera towards those we don’t necessarily look at. Those who are in the shadows, at the back, those who are reserved. Reserve, in general, is something that has always attracted me, and something I’ve always identified with.
Often, when I write a film, I have a few images in my head that then develop over time. Here, there was an image of two French hostages who were freed after months of detention in Syria, in 2012 or 2013. There were four of them, actually, but of the two main ones, there was one man who was at the front. There was something incredibly luminous about him, an extraordinary strength that was emanating from him, even though we could still feel the pain, and that he’d seen some things. He was slightly older. And behind him, there was a much younger man, whose face was much more closed and who always stayed at the back without saying a word. They had been interviewed a few times, and it was always the older one speaking; it felt as though he was protecting the younger man. I was very moved by the one at the back, and that would be one of the images I’d keep to talk about the starting point of Maya.
7R: Silence is very present in the film; there are several scenes without dialogue, showing these characters just walking together. How do you write a script like this? How do you decide where they will go, how much you will show, and for how long?
MHL: The locations have always been at the centre of my inspiration. There are people who rely much more on the psychology of the characters, or what they will say to each other. For me, words are basically the surface of things, the froth. It’s not that words don’t count — some of them do. But there are also lots of words, and in our everyday lives, 90% of the things we say are small talk. 99% of the words we use in our lives just accompany our everyday lives, and lots of things play out in silence. I’m interested in making that silence exist.
The motor of the action, in my films, has often been displacement from one place to another. They’re places that, for me, are lived-in. That’s why I often film places I’ve been to, places that I know and which have a history with me. My films are often quests — not towards the past, because the present will always take over the past — but I often have this impulse towards places I’ve been which I feel I have an intimacy with.
I think that’s why I can’t imagine myself making films in a studio. Because in a studio, we create from scratch places which don’t exist, which don’t have a story, which don’t have a soul except for the one that the film will try to give them. What interests or inspires me is, on the contrary, places where I can feel layers of history. I can really feel that vibrate in the image, when I shoot. It’s really a very strong element in my mise en scene.
The trip within Maya, however, is really something separate. I made that trip separately from the shoot: we shot the film, then I went back to France to shoot the French part, then we went back to film this trip to India. But we went with a very small team, because we couldn’t move an entire team around, of course. And in any case, that was the only way for me to do it with total freedom, the way I wanted. There was only the cinematographer [Hélène Louvart], who was holding the camera; Roman [Kolinka] who was also helping to carry the material; I did the sound; and there was an Indian boy who helped us during the entire trip.
We had a contact in every town, and we were really autonomous. It was great for me, because although there are many locations that are linked to my story in the film, I also wanted the film to push me forward. I wanted an aspect of pure discovery, of improvisation, of simultaneous writing. The trip of this character in the film allowed me to write this part of the film little by little, as I was living it. This was the strongest moment for me, because it was a rather unique experience — I felt like I was recovering a complete innocence. We would arrive to the locations, and we’d discover where we would shoot just as we went — including flats we would find just on the day, which forced me to improvise little scenes on the spot. That was really fascinating.
7R: Was this the first time you did improvisations?
MHL: It was the first time there was this possibility, in one of my scripts, to find myself doing this kind of simultaneous writing. This moment allowed it because the trip was very open; it was two lines in the script. It was a purely cinematographic writing, which gave me an incredible sensation of freedom. But that was really because the film allowed for it; not all films can be made that way. Here, we were shooting on Super 16. There weren’t scenes; there was no dialogue. I thought it was wonderful that the film allowed for this.
7R: It is difficult not to judge the journalist Gabriel when he begins a relationship with Maya, because she is so young, and because he is a tourist and she lives there. But we spend so much time with them that, after a while, we almost can’t help but understand why it happened, on some level. That situation isn’t right from a moral perspective, but it is right in other ways; it’s a moment in life. Your films often do this leap where they transcend the beliefs and expectations we might have at the start. They become slices of life which are all the more touching and realistic for the way they don’t necessarily follow logic, reason, or moral. How do you write films like this?
MHL: I try to create characters who are free, and a cinema that is free also in the sense that it gets rid of the intentions that films are often charged with. It’s something I feel a lot in cinema: very often, intentions and the things that define a character are really put forward and to the surface, but it often lacks freedom in the sense of space, or breathing space.
My films are, before anything else, portraits; I try to make my characters live. The time of the film is the time that will be necessary to make their presence felt. Once the characters are really incarnated, once we’ve had time to look at them, to let them live and exist without burdening them with messages, intentions, external things — there’s a moment where a truth of the characters appears. My films really are about presence. They’re attempts to incarnate characters in their truth, in their truth of the moment, and not after theoretical ideas of what defines them. He does this, he does that — no.
7R: Eden was about this young man who sort of lets himself get carried away through life. When he finally realises, it’s already been twenty years, and it’s too late. I feel like Maya pushes this even further, with the journalist letting himself get carried into this relationship: he’s older; he’s not from here; she’s much younger; he’s going to break her heart…
MHL: At the same time, he does everything he can to resist it. He doesn’t want this affair. This girl literally falls into his arms, and his resistance is simply put to the test, because she has an incredible grace and freshness. I never judge my characters. I always love them and I have empathy for them. But it’s true that I never show people who are vile or bad, because it doesn’t interest me. I know that they exist, but I’m not interested in showing them.
I always make films where everyone has their reasons. This character, Gabriel, I completely excuse him in the sense that I don’t consider him guilty of this encounter. I don’t think we should judge things in a reductive way — here, that would be, “are they going to consummate their relationship?” — because beyond knowing whether they consummate or not, this is, most of all, an encounter. I think that this girl restores grace for him. Something he lost in his life — a rapport with the present, with immediacy, with sensuality, too. This girl gives him that. He refuses, because he knows this affair is impossible, that it would be frowned upon — that a white man who arrives and goes out with an 18-year-old would look bad. But at some point, there is a truth bigger than just the social truth of their story.
7R: As you mentioned, your characters are often quite shy, closed-off people. Here, the character is traumatised by his experience, and everyone tells him that he needs to talk about it. By the end of the film, he hasn’t really talked about it at all, but he feels better.
MHL: Yes. That is the movement of the film. It’s this force, a bit mysterious and obscure, that we have in ourselves — which is also the force of vocation — which might not be stronger than ourselves, but is definitely stronger than a lot of things. In a lot of my films, actually, my characters overcome obstacles which might appear insurmountable.
In Things to Come, Isabelle Huppert’s character is left by her husband at a moment in life where it seems impossible to reinvent oneself. And yet, she overcomes, because there is something stronger and deeper than that pain, and which has to do with a love for life. It isn’t necessarily formulated in the same way in Things to Come, Eden, or in Maya.
It’s this idea that we have something in ourselves that has to do with freedom, with love for life, with a sensual rapport to the world, that moves us forward and allows us to overcome these obstacles. I’m more interested in showing that, in pushing my character towards this force, rather than in showing the things that weigh him down or his psychological trauma. That interests me less. I know it exists. With the same topic, I could have made a much more dramatic, commercial, or conventional film, where I would have addressed PTSD, etc. But in the end, that interests me less than the things that will, on the contrary, bring him back towards freedom, towards his job — the things that will resist his pain.
7R: I always wonder how you work with your actors, because they are so calm and their performances so subtle, even as the characters go through intense and painful changes. The actors don’t have to do anything particularly extreme. How do you work with them? Do you talk to them about the characters, or do you let them do their own interpretation?
MHL: I don’t really believe in psychological explanations. I always had a hard time believing that knowing a lot of things about a character would help an actor play it better. I’ve always believed, and this is the experience I’ve had with the actors I’ve worked with, that the truth of the characters is to be found in the concrete things of the everyday — in the way they talk, in their rhythm, in the way they move — rather than in the information on their resume. I never had faith in that. And I’ve always been lucky to meet actors who, themselves, weren’t demanding this kind of resume.'It’s this idea that we have something in ourselves that has to do with freedom, with love for life, that moves us forward and allows us to overcome these obstacles.' —Mia Hansen-LøveClick To Tweet
Isabelle Huppert is the incarnation of this type of acting. She’s an actress who never needs to have anything explained to her. I think that the less she knows, the better she plays. You have to trust her, and she understands instinctively. I’ve worked with actors like this much more than with others. There is air and space around them. The characters aren’t overloaded with intentions. I think that, rather than enrich the characters, ideas that can be summed up in one sentence impoverish them and reduce them to little outlines. On the contrary, I try to go towards the humane, and the humane is infinite. To go towards that, I think we have to escape narrative constructions.
Once you’ve made your first film, no one usually bothers you with this anymore. But often, when you start writing films, you have to make a file and sum up the characters. I find that extraordinarily difficult. When I had to do it, I always hated it. I felt like I was impoverishing the characters by summing them up. Because it’s the same for the real people around me: I can’t sum them up in five lines — it’s their voice, their presence…
Moreover, my characters are always very much influenced by the actors who play them. There is often something open about them for the actor. It’s true in the case of Aarshi, who plays Maya in the film. I always adapted the film to her. It’s not necessarily about what she says, but it’s about the way she talks, the way she dresses. Almost all the clothes she wears in the film are really hers. I really tried to make it so that Aarshi could bring her truth to the character. I didn’t want a disembodied character that would only be theoretical, which I alone would construct, and which she would have to fit in like in a mold. I adapted to her.
7R: The film is very colourful due to it being set in India. Yet there isn’t that ‘postcard’ look to it. It doesn’t feel like a tourist’s view of the place.
MHL: I hope that I managed to avoid this ‘postcard’ look, indeed. One of the most exciting things for me about directing this film was the ambition to shoot India the way I see it. Something which might have motivated me was that the India which I knew a little — I know it better now, but I had already been there quite a few times — I didn’t feel like I saw it in films. In Indian films, it’s usually a completely fantasmagoric, reconstructed image of India, often shot in studio; or if they shoot in the street, they empty it of people. There are documentaries about India, but they usually just show the poverty, the misery, the violence, etc.
I was trying to capture India as I know it: its mix of modernity and ancient things, its particular poetry — without idealising it, but also without darkening it. I wanted to find the right distance and to capture what I felt was the beauty of India for me, what I liked about India, what I found seductive about it.
It was a real ambition, because it’s not easy to film India as it is: as soon as you put down your camera in the street in India, everyone looks at you; you’re asked to leave or to pay, etc. Simply getting this freedom to film the India of today is, in itself, quite complicated. What might have been the most tiring, the most difficult, the most ambitious thing we did on this film, was to make the local Indian team understand that we really needed this freedom . We had to find a way to film India with a very small team, which isn’t the case on Indian films.
Most of the time, when I was filming the street, we filmed it as it was: those weren’t my cars, and there were no extras. To manage to film that, all the while being a film team, shooting fiction and on film, with a real formal ambition in the mise-en-scène, with lots of tracking shots — it was a challenge. To do a tracking shot on someone passing through a street in Goa without anyone looking at the camera requires quite a mad strategy. The whole team would turn their backs to the camera, hide everywhere; if I didn’t need sound, we just wouldn’t record it, or I would hide the microphone. It required a strategy that was both exhausting and exciting, because I felt like this would be another thing to give my film its legitimacy. I would show a side of India that we don’t often see in the cinema.