Mia Hansen-Løve on the Quest to Understand Life Through Filmmaking

Filmmakers are not their films, but Mia Hansen-Løve continues drawing the assumption. Her eighth feature, One Fine Morning, extends a series of semi-autobiographical works the director insists are diaristic but not direct—with the caveat that this and her last, Bergman Island, are maybe the two to most engage with self-portrait. More interesting is how her oeuvre, perhaps the most immediately pleasurable of any to emerge these last 20 years, complicates itself each time out: each film resonates with the last in its concerns and preoccupations while adding new colors (location changes, meta commentary, sexual fierceness) that only paint a greater and greater portrait.

And the films—pensive, rife with life’s tragedies—can’t suggest how mirthful and engaged Hansen-Løve always proves in-person. If One Fine Morning concerns tragedy, while talking about it the writer-director approaches each avenue with noted enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s part and parcel of Hansen-Løve considering these films, in her own words, diaries of a life: discussions of them might become addendums.

Accordingly I wanted to start our interview where the last, one year ago, left off.

The Film Stage: Last year we talked about Bergman Island. At the end of our interview I asked if completing that film—which you’d thought about and produced over a long period—turned a page. That brought us to One Fine Morning, which you thought could signal progress or if, I quote, “You just stick to your own obsessions for your whole life, and sometimes something happens and you think you are on a new level—you’ve changed—and then you discover you haven’t changed at all and are still haunted by the same things.”

Mia Hansen-Løve: [Puts head on desk] I don’t know if it’s nice to hear that. Yeah. [Laughs]

Do you think you progressed, or are you still haunted by the same things?

I’m still haunted by the same things. Do we ever progress? I don’t know. There are a lot of people who tell me these days that their favorite film of mine is my first feature, which actually always depresses me. Although I don’t have any favorite film of mine—it’s not for me to say which one is the best—and I love them equally just because they were all so sincerely made. But still: I don’t want to know which one is the best or which one is the worst or which one they prefer. But what I mean is that I still think we have to accept that there is not necessarily progress.

Maybe there is reinvention. Just as Tim Roth says in Bergman Island: the perspective changes, so that’s how we make new films out of the same old obsessions. If people think that’s progress, well, it’s good. But I don’t think it has to be—that’s what I mean. Anyway: time passes, we get older, we change, the world changes constantly. So that leads to new films, new stories, a new way of using film as an art. But I’m just trying, here, to be cautious with this idea of progress. Also because maybe I don’t like people telling me “Oh, this is your best film.” Each of my films are like diaries of my life. [Laughs] Not that they are all autobiographical—I don’t mean it in that way—but my films are companions for me. I’m trying with my film to understand life better. I’m in a constant quest. It’s not like you’re in school and trying to get some better notes. You know what I mean?

Having loved your movies for a long time, I have a quick response—they embody so much of what I value. So I see One Fine Morning and immediately slip into its pace, rhythm, sensibility. After seeing it I said there’s nothing more comforting than a Mia Hansen-Løve character’s apartment.

That’s so nice to hear!

One Fine Morning was shot across separate seasons. When we last talked you’d just filmed the first half of your schedule and were getting ready for the latter.

Mmm-hmm.

And what I love about this movie is: it understands why a street you walked down in summer feels completely different in winter. Which I think a lot about, having lived in the same city my adult life. So what are you trying to emphasize in each season? For instance, the summer light is as strong as the winter chill. You also like to shoot in places you know very well—so surely the location choices play a role.

It’s interesting, what you mention about the seasons and how you felt them in the film—because I wasn’t that aware of the seasons. I mean… yes, I needed to have at least two different seasons, and that mattered—as it always does—because of the changes of atmosphere and the light it brings to the film. Also how it expresses the passing of time. So of course it mattered, but it felt—I thought—that no one would really pay attention to it. Especially after Bergman Island, where everything was about the light, the places, the summer. I was really filming the summer then. While I was making One Fine Morning I just felt I was filming the hospital rooms and apartments.

But it’s nice to realize that people are still… “people.” Or at least [Laughs] some people—the ones who are sensitive to my work, I guess; not everybody, of course—but some people can still be sensitive to what’s in the background of the film and not so obviously there, if you compare it to how much we see of hospital rooms. But I think it has to do with my own relationship to the places that I film. I think, for instance, if you were talking about the first scene: it’s in late spring and it’s really sunny and you can feel that. And then we are in an apartment, Georg’s apartment, and it’s true that I wanted the sun felt in those scenes. That is true.

Maybe because they were going to be the last scenes where Georg is in his place before he has to leave his apartment and he’s taken to hospitals. Somehow I wanted light in those scenes. Not that they were happy moments—they’re not—but somehow I needed to have light to emphasize the beauty of those places; places that will disappear later. So yes: I’m extremely sensitive to the light and the places. I think it’s part of why I could, for instance, never film—so far; maybe that would change someday—but I’m sure I told you before: I could never film in a studio. For me, the choice of the places have so much to do with the way the light goes inside them and how the light changes during the day. A set is not only about its space; it’s a lot about the windows and how it connects with what’s outside, how the light evolves there. Sorry—I got lost.

No, it resonates with how the movie plays for me. I’m watching as she walks down the street, buttoned-up, and as much as anything I’m struck by how you reached the perfect level of overcast.

Oh… oh, I work on that a lot, actually. [Laughs] That can drive the production crazy. Like, I can change the shooting day ten times until I get the proper weather. Mostly it’s because I’m looking for light and sun. Not that I want everything to be looking nice, but it’s just: the sun, when it’s sunny, gives more relief and shadows to everything. So that’s one of the reasons why I may sometimes wait very long and fight until I can… it’s not like we have that much sun in Paris, you know? So sometimes I can drive everyone crazy.

It was even worse—much worse, actually—when I did Bergman Island and we were shooting the scenes where Mia Wasikowska and Anders are doing the bike ride. [Laughs] Like, Mia really discovered—I think she has a great memory of that—what it is to wait a whole day for, like, the sun to come out of the clouds, but it really made sense for me to… I didn’t want to have, necessarily, the blue sky. I love the clouds, but I love them when sun breaks in.

Over a decade of watching your movies those images and textures left as big an impression as anything. So it’s worth it.

Well, thank you. It’s reassuring. I will say that to my producers next time I get in a fight with them about waiting for so long. You know, I do think time—giving yourself the time: time to wait for the actor, time to wait for the right tone, the right emotion; time to wait for the kids to find the right lightness and freedom in front of the camera—is really the crucial thing to me. And I always thought, since I made films, in order to have enough time in shooting—enough time on the set—to me it’s the big deal. And that’s what makes a difference to all the bad TV series, too: we have to preserve to make things, to have the possibility to reach—whether it be light or acting or mise-en-scène.

When we discussed Maya I asked about the love scenes, which I found curious for having been shot from a distance. You said that “has to do with formal choices of mine—my own grammar as a director—but somehow it also has to do with eroticism: for me, there is something erotic about that.”

Mmm-hmm. I agree. [Laughs]

In One Fine Morning it’s very up-close, intense: a lot of kissing, the sounds of kisses, hands rubbing against skin. How did you decide these would be more erotic—if that’s a fair word to use.

They are, but I think there is still shyness and distance—even here, if compared to other films. Maybe I take more time to look at it? I look at it more frontally than I have done before? Maybe I was even more shy. And it’s true: I still agree that eroticism had to do with that shyness, but I think it also had to do with respecting Aarshi Banerjee’s shyness in front of the camera. I also think you have to adapt to the actors you work with.

But actually, I mean [Laughs] I actually don’t see the love scenes in my films again after they’re edited. Even when they’re edited I’m like this. [Covers face with hands] So that tells you about my relationship to those scenes. I mean, once I’m in the set I have to be kind of brave with them because they are important. The film really deals with that. The film really deals with sexuality, rediscovery of Sandra’s body, falling in love again, rediscovering your own sensuality and how much joy it brings. So I had to look at it, and that gave me the courage to film them.

But I always try, however frontal or less frontal they are, to find my own way of looking at it, my own grammar, and I never try to pretend that I’m more self-confident than I am. On the one hand, if the film needs those scenes I want to film them and not be afraid of them. I want to look at things the way they are. I mean really look at it. I think so many films pretend to be something… how can I say it? To me, there is so much posturing in how sex scenes are filmed. So many directors pretend to be so, I don’t know, self-confident—you feel like they are so much sex pros. You know what I mean?

I do.

There are so many directors who film sex scenes like they know so well about sex, how to film it. They are “so strong.” Including women, actually. I am trying to be sincere here; I am not trying to be more at ease here. I really am. So I am trying to look at the way that it is for me. You know what I mean?

Yes.

What I enjoyed, actually, a lot about those scenes in my film is that Léa—that could surprise you, maybe—but she’s extremely shy. That’s something we can see especially in the scene where she kisses Clément, Melvil Poupaud, because she actually blushed when we did that scene. She was terrified. I was surprised: I thought I would be the shy director and she would be totally at ease with those scenes. She had been through this a thousand times. And for some reason it was as if this was all new for her.

I still can’t explain this, but maybe if she had been in films where those scenes were filmed in a more mechanical way, maybe she wasn’t so shy about them. But maybe here—because somehow it felt more real to her—she suddenly became almost terrified. To the point that you can see, in the scene where she kisses Clément for the first time—and it was actually the first kiss in the shooting—that she’s really afraid, like a young girl would be afraid to kiss a boy for the first time. That, to me, gives so much charm to the scene.

You’ve expressed the fear that every movie could be your last. Maybe there’s no good way of answering this, but: if One Fine Morning ended up being your final movie, how would you feel about it as a closing statement?

[Pause] Sorry, I’m trying to think of it. Really. I don’t know how to answer this because I actually made the film as if it was my last film. Maybe I would say that every time—maybe I said that about Bergman Island. I don’t think I would say that about Maya. But maybe those last two films are actually, strangely enough, working together. One has more to do with exploring the unknown; this one has to do with going back home. But at the end they are maybe my two most autobiographical films and my two most frontal films, actually. So I feel like I made both as if they were my last films. And now, for the first time, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. And I feel a bit lost.

Maybe I’ve said that before. But if I said that about Bergman Island, still I had One Fine Morning that I was writing. I have some projects, but nothing autobiographical for sure. I feel like I’m at the end of that. That makes me feel a bit lost, which is sometimes a nice feeling; sometimes terrifying. But I do have the feeling that my eight films really—whatever they are—I have no idea how important they are. Or not important. But at least I think they really belong together. There is a unity about them. That I really like. Maybe because it’s what I like so much about Rohmer: this feeling that it’s like one home for me. When I go into the films of Rohmer I feel like exploring a new room of that place that he created—for him, and for me too as a spectator.

But I have at least one nice feeling about my work: that whatever the films are, they really talk to each other. They really are made with the same approach to filmmaking and there is a continuity. So that is nice. That’s the feeling that gives me some strength, I think, but at the same time it’s also [Laughs] scary in a way. Because I feel there is something here that is finished now. When I said One Fine Morning is going back to Tout est pardonné, that connects with this feeling—in French you say “boucler la boucle,” when you go back here and it’s over. I feel like I made a circle here. So now, wherever I go, I have to explore something else: another way of making films of course as personal, but in another way. It’s not like I can do one more autobiographical film. I can’t. I reached that point where I just can’t go further in that direction. And that’s a bit scary. [Laughs] You know what I mean?

Take what you will that for myself and many others your films are important—valued, anticipated, rewatched. All that.

Thank you. It’s nice to hear that—especially these days. Because my films actually don’t do a lot in France, in terms of audience. They’re very small. So I think the French arthouse—maybe arthouse in general—is very vulnerable these days. I just feel vulnerable like, I guess, most filmmakers who work the same way I do. So I actually have to remember that the films still get seen and have another life after they’re released. Really: it means a lot.

One Fine Morning has a one-week qualifying run in NYC beginning December 9 and opens on January 27.