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A Conversation With Mia Hansen-Løve (GOODBYE FIRST LOVE)

“I trust you to improve my English!” So says the voice of Mia Hansen-Løve to Tom Hall while wrapping up their conversation that took place last fall at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. As Mr. Hall is currently hard at work being the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Film Festival—where Goodbye First Love screens on April 19th and 22nd—I have been forced to rise to Ms. Hansen-Løve’s challenge. But first, here’s the SFF catalog description:

“Camille (Lola Créton) is a bright Parisian high school student in love with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzandowski), a teenage boy whose wanderlust overwhelms his ability to participate in a real relationship. When Sullivan decides to drop out of school and travel the world, he leaves Camille to suffer his loss and to flower in his wake. Beautifully shot and told in the classic tradition of the best in French cinema, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love is a classic coming of age story, a meditation on how to mend a broken heart and find happiness by engaging the beauty of life’s opportunities.”

At only 31 years old, with only three features under her belt, and without the use of an overtly “showy” style, Mia Hansen-Løve has nonetheless done something it takes most young filmmakers a lifetime to (never) achieve: she’s found her true voice. It’s an ethereal balance of intuition and intelligence that is suffused with a wisdom that is light years beyond her actual years. It is cinema of the most crush-worthy order. Sundance Selects releases Goodbye First Love theatrically in NYC and LA on Friday, April 20, 2012, as well as on Cable VOD everywhere on April 27th. (Michael Tully)

Hammer to Nail: In Michael Tully’s previous interview with you for this site [for The Father of My Children], one of the things you talked about was style—specifically, how you never get questions about style because yours is so unobtrusive. One of the things I found so wonderful about this film is how you used style to more fully realize the emotional texture of this girl’s experience. When you’re shooting a film, how do you balance drawing certain emotions out of these actors who must hit these very precise emotional beats, while also considering the mise-en-scène at the same time?

Mia Hansen-Løve: Style is extremely important for me. For me, there is not, on one hand, the story you want to tell, and on the other, the question of how you want to tell it. It’s pretty much the same thing. It’s quite difficult to analyze it. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it’s quite difficult to do. Because the form that comes naturally from the story is something that is pretty much intuitive for me. Though style is extremely important to me, I don’t try to adopt a visual form that people will talk about, one so obvious that it’s easy to pinpoint or define. I think in some films, many great films, you can say, “Oh, it’s handheld,” or, “It’s a very long shot,” so you can recognize very radical formal choices. In my film, it’s not like that. I don’t think it ever will be, because every time I have thought about doing that, like having one long shot that people would notice, I felt like that would have been a pose. For me, posing is always untrue. To me, it’s the wrong direction. That doesn’t necessarily mean I feel that way about other films, but if I do that, I feel like it would be too affected. Sometimes, I think it’s a shame that I can’t do that, because for some people my film would be stronger since it would be more aggressive in its form. But you can’t help being who you are, and for me the truth is something that has to do with nuances. That’s why it’s difficult for me to define my own style because it’s not something that I can explain or write in an essay.

For me, the actor is always more important than the formal decisions. Formal decisions can always be phrased as a question; they’re never definitive. Every time where there are very emotional scenes, I try to be as simple as possible. The most important thing is that the actor can play out the scene without it being cut into too many shots. Even if I have several different set-ups, I let them play the whole scene through. For instance, when I filmed the scene where they are arguing in the countryside. The way I filmed it was so that the actors could feel totally free. I said to Lola, “So, you are here. You will come and then go away. He follows you, but then you go where you want in the garden and we’ll just be following you wherever you go.” The only thing that I asked her, because we were going to shoot several takes, was to maintain her physical continuity from one take to the other. So she was totally free. It’s difficult, because the DP had to follow here wherever she went, but for me it helps to find a more natural movement, the way she walks, or the moment where she sits down and cries. It’s not me saying, “At this moment you should do that, then that.” It’s really she who has to find her own footing. I don’t like in films when I can feel that the actor was told to “move from here to here,” and then to “turn.” That’s one thing I’d really like to avoid.

H2N: That sounds a little bit like magic, then, because your style is so consistent throughout. And maybe that is your intuition, but you remain tied directly to the emotional life of your character at all times. That seems to be what works about this film in particular so deeply for me, that I’m re-experiencing the same sort of feelings myself as a viewer beat-by-beat and moment-by-moment, yet to think that there was this sort of freedom allowed while still getting a consistency from the actors? And also, there are various rhymes with the river and the country scenes, where one is a limitation and one is a newfound freedom. To think that you opened things up in that way…

MHL: I think it can be both. I prepare a lot. My scenes are extremely worked through. The locations, for instance—you mention the river—I’ve been spending my whole life there, so I know this place by heart. I’ve been there a thousand times. It’s the first film where I shot in places that I know so well, so the film was quite special for me. I tried to find other locations, and I really felt that for some scenes I had to be in places that I knew in a very deep way, and not only places that people found for me because they were “nice.”

For instance, the smaller house where they go to pick cherries and where she returns at the end, that’s my grandmother’s house in the countryside. I just love this place, because it’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s very wild. And the structures that you see, they’ve always been there. I really took the place as it was. I filmed there since I had walked in those spaces so many times and dreamed so much there. When you have this kind of relationship to a location, you know how to film there and where to put your camera. If I’m filming in a flat I don’t know, it will take me a lot of time to know how to shoot it. Usually, I ask my producers to secure the locations well in advance, and I ask the person living in the flat if I can visit up to one whole week before the shoot. I need a lot of time to figure out exactly where to put the camera. I don’t know that immediately. It’s a huge amount of work.

But with the places that I’d been to as a child, like the river, it comes much more easily. It’s as if I had been thinking about these scenes, these places forever. Even if that’s not the case, because I didn’t want to be a filmmaker until I was twenty! But I think I’ve always known that at one point I would go to these places and film them. For me, that river really is the place where everything starts. I’ve lived in Paris since I was born, but it was a very small flat. A little bit dark and it was not a very nice place—we were poor, it was small. And so every summer we used to go to this house, in a location where you had no tourists, where it was totally empty. I feel like so much of who I am, my imagination, the importance of poetry in my life, came from this place, and from the happiness I had every summer, where I finally had space and could feel free and escape from Paris, even though I love Paris. This contrast between my life in Paris and the quietude is in the very center of this film, I think.

H2N: Do you experience those memories cinematically, in your own thinking? Do you have camera moves in your head when you remember your childhood, and did you try to replicate those in the film?

MHL: I don’t have camera movements in my head ever, even when I write. I never see a camera. But I have images, yes. At the starting point of my film, there is never an idea, like something I want to “say” to people, a political or social message. For me, the starting point is always very strong, deep emotion, and images that are connected to this emotion. Like, of course, the river in the very beginning, but also the hat flying. It’s not because you make it up as a symbol or metaphor. For me, it doesn’t really have to do with that. It’s more an image of my childhood when I think about this place. You know how in those big houses you have plenty of hats? And wind. Wind is very important in my imagination. Actually, I was very happy that at the end of the film—it’s not obvious because I didn’t really underline it that much—but in the last ten minutes, when we go back to the countryside, I was very lucky that in many of the shots there was wind. Especially when she goes in front of the small house.

H2N: She puts the rocks down to keep her blanket from blowing away.

MHL: Yes. I think we were very lucky that we could film a moment when there was real wind.

H2N: The country figures prominently in your last film as well. There’s a similar contrast between Paris and the countryside. And the experiences of the characters seem to open up—maybe they aren’t fully transformed, but their emotional lives appear to open up in a different way. I’m wondering if you can talk about that, and not from your experience but from the experience of the characters in this film. It seems very personal to you, of course, but how do you see that relationship for them?

MHL: To the country?

H2N: Yeah.

MHL: I think it’s like you say. It’s more open and I’m sure it can look naïve because not many people are happy in the country, people hate the country and get bored. I can understand that myself. I don’t want to live in the country. I love Paris. But I wrote most of my films in the countryside. The silence is something that conjures thoughts of writing and triggers my imagination. I think even if people do talk in my films, silence is very present too. And so actually I associate the country with some kind of opening, as well as to the silence.

But in this film, the relation to the country is different between the beginning and the end. In the first part, there is also one other thing in the country that is different from what I just said. It has to do with the fact that the first part of the film is closed. You see them, you see their parents, but you do not see many other people. You don’t have many scenes in the streets; you are in apartments or in the countryside where there aren’t any tourists. Even when he goes to the lake there is nobody. It’s a kind of deserted world, and for me it was speaking to the kind of relationship they have. I find it very beautiful but I also think it’s also about their alienation.

Actually, the movement of the film is one of opening, and that’s all it’s about. Especially her; she’s opening herself to the world through her passion and love of architecture and for this man. Most people say it’s about first love, and of course it’s about that too. But for me, it’s even more pointedly a film about opening yourself to the world. At the end, when she returns to the country, it’s a totally different way of being there, because when she’s there again, she’s there with the world inside her.

H2N: She’s the master of herself.

MHL: Yes. She doesn’t see the world like an enemy or something you must fight against to stay yourself. She is in tune with it. A friend who saw my film told me a sentence that Jean Renoir had said. I didn’t know it, maybe it’s very famous, but I liked it very much because it captured what I tried to say with the film. Jean Renoir said [she speaks it confidently in French then struggles to translate], “To understand life is to be carried like a cork on a river.” The image of the hat at the end and the fact that she lets herself float in the river—for me, it’s not like resignation or being miserable. It’s more about being grown up, but in the best, healthiest possible way.

H2N: Like you said, her opening is the story of the whole film. And it’s done in very precise moments. It becomes an accumulation of details from her life. So there are these very powerful, emotional scenes between her and some of the men, but there also many moments of her at work and going about her daily routine. When you were writing the script, how did you select which moments you were going to use?

MHL: Two moments were very obvious from the start. They have to do with writing, where we see that she’s been writing in her diary. The first one is in the middle. She’s not yet really over it. She still doesn’t feel well. It’s the moment where she says, “Every day is still only a day without him. I wish I had faith but I have a vocation. Isn’t that a lot?” And after a big path in between, the second very important moment for me, the pivot, is at the end of Denmark, they visit this jetty, and he finds her diary, where it says… it’s impossible to translate, but basically the cloud is giving way for the first time. And I like this moment because, for me, it’s the first moment where architecture not only has to do with studying and working, but with real life. Because all the other places she’s seen, like Bauhaus or even the museum, they are very beautiful and she learned a lot from them. But they are still merely monuments. And while you can see and admire and analyze this place, it’s also full of these young people swimming and jumping and having fun. And that’s the point.

It’s just like film. When you want to make films it’s good to study them and write them, but the whole point is to actually be on a set communicating with people. That’s where things are alive and it has real meaning. For me, that jetty is the first moment where it really happens. When I was writing the script, I didn’t know this place, and it took a long time to find it, because I wanted a place that be both modern and beautiful and an interesting example of architecture in Denmark, but it would be full of people, full of life.

H2N: My last question. We’ve talked about this being a personal film for you. Can you tell me a little bit about the decision to tell this story now?

MHL: I made this film now because I felt it was the right moment to do it. I felt like I could not have done it before, because I didn’t feel ready to do so. I didn’t know how to tell the story. I felt uneasy with the idea of filming a girl who could be me. I didn’t have the right distance and I needed to find it. I also felt if I didn’t do it now, I’d never do it. It’s hard to explain. As with my previous film, for me it was exactly the right distance. It was far enough away that I could tell the story, but not too far away. I like that it’s still near and these memories are still very much alive in me. And the fact that I was pregnant when I wrote the script, impending parenthood made me grow up in a way while having a new perspective on the past, maybe. So I think that helped me to find the right distance to tell the story. I was writing it at the same time as Father of My Children, and I was not at ease with the idea of being with her all the time, ‘cause the main character was the boy. So I had to have him go to South America. I mean, I don’t speak Spanish, I’ve never been to South America, so it was impossible to tell his story, but at this point I was totally sure that he had to be the main character. And then, when I started again, after Father of My Children, I realized that the part I didn’t want to tell, when she’s alone, the experience of solitude, was the actual subject of the film!

— Tom Hall

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Tom Hall is the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Film Festival (2005- present) in Sarasota, FL and Programming Director at FILMnewport in Newport, RI (2009-present). Formerly, Hall was Programmer for The Nantucket Film Festival in Nantucket, MA (2002-2005) as well as a former Director of New Media for Bravo/The Independent Film Channel (1997-2000). He has also worked in the Industry and Guest Services Offices at The Hamptons International Film Festival (2002-2003). In January of 2010, Tom was named one of Spring Board Media’s 20 under 40 in Film. Tom has directed short films for Bob Mould's Carnival of Light and Sound Tour and is a member of the indieWIRE blogging community with his blog The Back Row Manifesto. A graduate of the University of Michigan (’94), Hall resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son.

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