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Director Mia Hansen-Løve on Cinematic Daddies, Marriage, and Needing Therapy

Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images

Maya, the latest from France’s youngest master filmmaker, Mia Hansen-Løve, tells a story superficially familiar to American audiences. Following a personal crisis, a wayward Westerner sets a track East to do some soul-searching in India. Instantly, shrewd viewers brace for solipsism, anticipating another white guy’s journey that never extends beyond the limits of himself. But the shrewdest of viewers know better, because they know Hansen-Løve.

She makes sensitive, aching films about characters in flux: a middle-aged woman coming to grips with a surprise divorce, a 30-something DJ slowly accepting that he’s never going to make it big, a student caught between two men and two versions of herself. Maya, which made its New York premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center during its annual Rendez-Vous With French Cinema festival, follows the French photojournalist Gabriele shortly after his release from captivity in Syria, as he travels to the Indian state of Goa to look after a bit of family property. The trip couldn’t be further from the sort of revitalizing vacation popularized by Eat, Pray, Love, which, for the record, Hansen-Løve has never heard of. Gabriele’s dalliance with an intelligent, beautiful girl named Maya disrupts his rudderless lifestyle, leaving him more uncertain than before. It’s a conflicted double portrait, typical for a director trafficking in the eternal act of reconfiguring one’s own identity.

Hansen-Løve comes from a long tradition of serious French cineastes, from Jean-Luc Godard to her longtime partner Olivier Assayas. Cutting their teeth as critics for the prestigious magazine Cahiers du Cinema instilled an appreciation for the conceptual over the technical, for films that function as collections of warring, squirming ideas seldom settled into order. (Naturally, Hansen-Løve is the daughter of two philosophy academics.) With six films now under her belt, she’s built a singular reputation in French cinema. There’s plenty of cause to call Hansen-Løve the next Jean Renoir, the next Rohmer, the next Truffaut, but the only accurate description would be that she is the first her.

While in town to make an appearance at the Rendez-vous, Hansen-Løve sat down with Vulture to discuss her new film, its racial and sexual politics, her unique connection with Assayas, and submitting to destiny. Fortunately, this also left sufficient time for the interviewer to explain the recent proliferation of the word “daddy” in American culture.

They told me you just flew in, I hope you’re not too tired.
You’re just my second interview for the day, so I’m not too tired, but [soon] I’ll be in trouble. My English is not so… I apologize if I have any issues.

That’s as fine a place to start as any. Your next movie, Bergman Island, will be your first in the English language, but characters in Eden and Maya flip in and out of English too. Do you find there’s a difference between writing dialogue in French and English?
For sure, but I don’t write my dialogues in English. I write them in French, and they get translated. I worked with a translator I’ve had forever, who does the subtitles on my films — an American named Andrew Litvack. On my next film, I reworked the lines with the actors, which isn’t the same as in French. In French, it comes out of my mouth so naturally, and in English, I worry that it might sound awkward. But on Maya, not so much. They were not supposed to be English anyway, so it wasn’t such a problem if it sounded awkward. He’s French, she’s Indian; they each use the English as they’ve learned it.

The relationship between Gabriele and Maya recalls the dynamic in Goodbye First Love between Camille and her lovers, Sullivan and Lorenz. What do you find special about the love between an older man and a younger woman?
Maybe it’s just because of me falling in love with older men? What I find special about it is that Americans see this a lot. I’m not sure I would’ve been aware of it if I wasn’t asked questions about it when I’m here. I’m not complaining! I’m just interested in the cultural difference. I mean, I was living with a man 25 years older than me and I didn’t notice. I know there is an issue about that, but in Goodbye First Love, [Camille and Sullivan] are almost the same age. It’s not like all my films deal with that. But yeah, it’s only when I screened Maya here that I started getting questions about the age difference, and I realized that yes, it’s true. Of course, if she was really, really young, that would be an issue to me. But she’s a young adult, that’s the way I see her.

Rather than a problem in the film, I think it’s reflective of the national character of audiences, like you say. Stereotypes about Americans being uptight and the French being liberated about sexuality, all that.
It’s true. Maybe girls are more mature in France.

But over the past couple years in American culture, we’ve seen this emerging ideal of the “daddy,” a romantic and sexual partner who’s also a paternal figure.
This is in real life? The ideal of “daddy”? In my films, I think it has more to do with a certain spiritual complicity they have. This also ties Lola and Lorenz together. It has to do with their love of architecture and style; it is an intellectual bond. Not to say there’s nothing erotic, there certainly is, but you can’t reduce it to a psychoanalytic relationship like that — a daddy figure.

In Maya, we join Gabriele at an in-between time, having just been freed from his captivity and not quite knowing what to do next. In this respect, he’s like Sven from Eden, too. What do you find compelling about characters in drift?
It’s hard to say, because it’s not something I really decided. I never choose what my films are going to be about. I just write them and try while writing them to figure that out. But you’re right that I’m attracted to what’s in between, what’s out of frame, what’s left in the dark. I’m trying to find a more concrete image. When the camera wants to be turned like this [holds hands perpendicular to body], I will turn it like this [holds hands parallel to body]. When I did Father of My Children, for instance, I thought the natural way to do it would be a film about a director who loses a producer. But I thought it’d be more exciting to show the producer, a figure that would otherwise stay in the shadow. In Eden, I felt like an obvious film would be about a DJ becoming a huge star, rise with no fall. So mine was all fall, no rise. Where I feel useful, where I have something to say, is where I can show what would otherwise not be shown.

So with Maya, I was inspired by footage of freed hostages being released. I felt like everyone would imagine the captivity, him being in the war zone, his reportage. I wanted to imagine the other side, moments where he doesn’t work and looks for direction. That’s more interesting to me.

Traveling somewhere far away, where you don’t know anyone, makes a person feel like they can reinvent themselves. Have you felt this way, like Gabriele does?
It’s part of why I made this film. There is a book that impressed me a lot a couple years ago, called The Journey Is the Direction. That was a book made out of the notebooks of a photojournalist named Dan Eldon, who died at 25 and left behind all these incredible letters. This character and this title — the journey being the destination — there’s something about that I feel very connected to. As for myself, after making Things to Come, a film so close to my own story and roots and childhood, maybe the closest film to my past, I felt a need to both mentally and artistically take the risk of going far away. I wanted to film in another place, another country, another context. I was attracted to India for a long time. I wouldn’t go just anywhere, it had to be a place that I was actually interested in, though this is not an autobiographical film. But it’s still personal for me, the attraction to the unknown. In that way, I feel similar to Gabriele. But I identify with the characters of all my films, no matter the age, gender, life story. If I can write them, it is because I have connected to them.

I was reminded of two films while watching Maya. The first was Renoir’s The River, which you’ve discussed in other interviews. But I’m curious, have you seen Eat, Pray, Love?

It was very popular in the U.S. about ten years ago, about a woman who goes through a bad breakup and then travels around the world to find herself. At the time, some criticized its narcissistic perspective — that she goes to India and makes it about herself. How do you balance telling the story of one character with doing right by your setting, and not making India an anonymous place?
I think the film is both. It is told from Gabriele’s perspective, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. You go somewhere, and would it be better to pretend to look at India from an Indian perspective when I am not Indian? In a way, it’s more honest to, ah, not “assume,” what’s the word?

Own up?
Not try to hide the distance between Gabriele, and between me, to India, yeah? But it helped that Goa gave us a specific place to capture. In many ways, the big challenge of the film was to show Goa as a part of India and as it is itself. There are so many portrayals where India is idealized, as in big Bollywood movies, and in the reverse, where it is caricatured in Western film. You have to either show an India that is solely fantasy or show how bad the poverty is. In my experience, and I’d been to India many times before making this film, people have their lives. It’s not about the subjects you see on television. I wanted to go further than that, and try in my own way — which I think is humble — to capture Goa as I experience it, as an outsider who’s spent some time there.

About your artistic relationship with Olivier [Assayas]: Do you think you are an influence on his work, and that he’s an influence on yours?
I think he has been a huge influence on my work, and I don’t think I’ve been an influence on his. [Laughs.] Maybe he’d say, Oh no, yes you have, that’s not true. But I think it’s more unconscious, if I have. I can’t claim to have an influence on his work, only he could say for sure. But he certainly had one on mine. This would be a very long discussion, we spent 15 years living together. His influence comes through in many ways, but one of them is opening myself up to trying so much. In terms of production, storytelling, he experiments in many different directions. Watching him being so daring helped me a lot to be daring. Maybe I wouldn’t have tried Eden if I hadn’t seen him be so unafraid to move on, to take risks.

In that line of thinking, what was the primary risk of taking on Maya?
Being a white person and making a film in India is not easy to defend today, and precisely because of that I wanted to be unafraid of it. If you’re a white girl living in Paris, you should only make movies about white women living in Paris? That would be so depressing! It’s more risky to do what I did instead of stay in my own little world, my own little bubble.

A good number of American press misunderstand your relationship with Olivier, assuming you two are married, though you chose not to be. Why do you think people would think that, and what motivates the choice not to marry?
Why people assume that? I should ask you. I have no idea. It’s an easy thing to think, right? Why wouldn’t we? Why not? It has nothing to do with love. In my case, it was not a matter of loving more or less. We were just happy like that. My parents were married for 20 years and then got divorced. To me, marriage is not the highest ideal. I don’t have anything against it. I don’t let preconceived ideas control my life. I try to find my own way, in filmmaking and in personal relationships.

Maya ends with Gabriele leaving Maya behind, just as Goodbye First Love ends with Camille leaving Sullivan behind. Do you prefer sad endings to happy endings?
Do you really think they are sad endings? I’d say they are ambivalent endings, which is really different. There are a lot of films I love that have a sad ending, and when I see them, it makes me ask myself why I can’t make films with really sad endings. I see mine as more open, or yeah, ambivalent. Never just sad or just happy. I couldn’t do a film with a just-sad ending, it would affect me too much.

I think we’re talking about the same thing — a sadness that makes you feel good, that’s the ambivalence.
Yes, exactly. It’s a grief, a renouncement, a letting go. There’s often this idea in my films of letting go of something in order to save something more essential. In life, we must leave things behind to move on. It’s very simplistic, the way I’m saying it now, but this is what the endings of my films deal with. Goodbye First Love ends with the hat Sullivan gave her blowing away, and that sums up my view — you don’t have a choice. The wind takes it. It’s not a moralistic point of view, it’s a philosophical one. This is just how things happen; we cannot fight against the movement of life, so we better embrace it.

Hollywood movies have this obsession with the concept of agency, of characters who make things happen rather than letting things happen to them. Your characters seem more at peace going with the flow.
This is a good way to put it. How did you say, “going with the flow”? I used to know a quote from Renoir about les Fauves and about freedom. I lost it. I’m sure it’s easy to find, but he said something about how characters should be like a cork floating on water and move with the flow. People think of this as the opposite of freedom, but this is true freedom. My films deal with the idea of freedom that doesn’t fight with destiny.

Your experience, as a critic and actress and writer and director, is seen less in the American cinema. Does having done all of this give you a fuller understanding of the art form?
I feel much more like a director than anything else. My time as an actress was very short and amateur. As a critic, too, that was the worst.

I’ve heard you had to deal with a lot of misogyny, that Cahiers du Cinema could be sort of a boys’ club.
I never suffered from sexism as a director. But, and I wouldn’t say I “suffered” from it, but I certainly noticed some sexism as a film critic. I don’t regret that time at all, I just felt like I wasn’t made for that. It would take me a week to write a single review. I’d have to rewrite it again and again, and then at the end, it wouldn’t even be so good. Though I think this did help me to read my own scripts with more of a critical point of view.

I think that it’s a great exercise to learn about my own work, doing interviews. I learn about my own work having to discuss it. But we filmmakers tend to do too many of them. Life is so short! I want to spend as much time as possible reading, dreaming, thinking — making my films, not reanalyzing them. The self-analysis sometimes terrifies me.

I take it you’re not in therapy?
[Laughs.] No, I’m not. I probably need it, but … [shrugs].

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mia Hansen-Løve on Cinematic Daddies and Needing Therapy