Why this might not seem so easy
By her own admission writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s style is difficult to define. She strives for filmmaking ‘transparency’, avoiding showy techniques in favour of a more subtle, understated approach – one that’s deeply felt and personal. Her films foreground character and mood, though often contain sudden, transformative incidents. They are something like the films of French New Wave director Eric Rohmer: intelligent and dialogue led, yet with an ardent emotional core.
Like Rohmer, Hansen-Løve served as a critic at the journal Cahiers du Cinéma. She admired the New Wave directors, who created their own cinematic language, and in unassuming fashion she has done the same, fashioning a delicate, individual style that’s intellectual, sensual and bittersweet.
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So what are the identifying patterns of Hansen-Løve’s filmmaking? There is frequently a semi-autobiographical element to her work, and while she asserts her films as works of fiction, she also admits to there being something of a 2-way street, with a “confusion” between fiction and reality. With inspiration stemming from her brother’s experiences as a DJ (Eden), her philosophy professor parents’ divorce (Things to Come) and her own love life (Goodbye First Love, and, from its premise of a filmmaking couple travelling to Faro to write their own scripts, one assumes the forthcoming Bergman Island), there’s clearly a blurring of boundaries going on.
Common Hansen-Løve themes are the coming of age, mourning and loss – often stemming from the unexpected, traumatic interruptions life throws at us – as well as change, the passing of time and potential for rebirth. Through an attention to realism, everyday moments and an authentic, naturalistic performance style, her films gradually assume a devastating emotional weight that belies their seeming simplicity.
A final ingredient is her inspired use of music. Whether employing the plaintive tones of Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling, introducing a heartbreaking accapella rendition of ‘Unchained Melody’, or, in Eden, discussing Frankie Knuckles’ ‘The Whistle Song’ as somewhere “between euphoria and melancholy” (as apt a description as any of Hansen-Løve’s filmmaking mode), music plays a crucial role in conjuring her distinctive atmosphere and tone.
The best place to start – Goodbye First Love
In Hansen-Løve’s third feature, 2 young lovers exit a cinema. Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a somewhat arrogant, self-interested student, complains of the film they’ve just seen: “It’s so French… It’s talky, complacent.” The younger, more romantic Camille (Lola Créton) – based on the teenage Hansen-Løve herself – replies that he just doesn’t get it; he’s not sensitive enough. Whether you ‘get’ Goodbye First Love (2011) may determine whether you’ll appreciate the director’s work as a whole, embodying as it does her distinctly personal approach to filmmaking.
It’s a film suffused with the heightened sensations of an overwhelming first relationship, followed by the inexorable trauma when one lover, in spectacularly insensitive fashion, finds it overly suffocating. Camille is bereft, but slowly, painfully overcomes her reckless, obsessive love to face the challenges and relationships of a more stable yet less intoxicating adult world.
While all this may sound melodramatic, it’s only because adolescent passion so often is, yet the film takes such fervour seriously. The terrible craving for being in love and the inevitable sense of loss is by turns tender and heartbreaking, and the filmmaking itself remains profoundly authentic even as it is saturated with feeling. Camille’s subsequent relationship with an architecture professor (assumed to be based on her former partner, the director Olivier Assayas) offers a way out of destructive desire and the possibility for renewal.
What to watch next
What’s next may be decided by your degree of interest in 90s club culture, but irrespective of your knowledge of Daft Punk, the French touch and soulful garage, Eden (2014) is a fascinating work. Based on the life of Hansen-Løve’s brother Sven (who co-wrote the screenplay), it tells the story of a clubber turned DJ living the dream until it starts to sour. Paul is a permanent adolescent, lost in music, who one day wakes to find he’s a 30-something with nothing but a cocaine habit to show for his work.
The film’s strength is that it avoids easy judgments, instead understanding the pull of hedonism and how music can lift us out of the everyday. Eden manages to be both a poignant study of the passage of time and end of youth, while also standing as an essential film on club culture. It conveys that elusive sense of transcendence in succumbing to the rhythm, as much as it sees the dangers of more superficial excess.
But if you really have no interest in dance music, perhaps you should move straight to Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (2016), the tale of philosophy professor Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) coping with the sudden break-up of her marriage and the myriad problems middle-age throws at us, both professionally, personally and, yes, philosophically. Following the split, Nathalie protests to a young student protégé that her life isn’t over, that she’s lucky to be fulfilled intellectually. But she struggles with her newfound freedom and loneliness, even as she’s capable of seeing them for the clichés they are.
Huppert’s superbly judged performance creates a character that is strong, vulnerable, emotional, cerebral, annoying, greatly sympathetic and absolutely gripping to watch. In a film that values in-depth discussions of Rousseau as much as depictions of emotional inner turmoil, Hansen-Løve deftly patterns the life of a middle-aged intellectual exploring her new realities, and does so in a way that feels surprisingly affecting and true.
In fact, one of the director’s great strengths is her ability to render authentic experience while maintaining an objective filmmaker’s restraint, whether considering someone facing a serious mid-life crisis or portraying an adolescent navigating a rapidly shifting world. In her first 2 films, All Is Forgiven (2007), the story of a family torn apart through a father’s drug addiction, and Father of My Children (2009), in which a film producer struggles to stay afloat as financial pressures come to bear, Hansen-Løve manages to examine both mid-life and adolescent views within the same film.
Structurally, too, the films share a similar approach, beginning with the story of one character, then unexpectedly switching to another after a calamitous event. Perhaps most surprising is how developed the director’s style has been from the very beginning; these films identifiably have the Hansen-Løve touch.
Where not to start
Maya (2018) follows a French war reporter and recently released hostage struggling to adjust to his regained freedom in Paris. He flees to Goa, where he revisits his childhood home and meets the teenage Maya, his godfather’s daughter. Offering another variation on the themes of overcoming tribulation, finding the potential for revival in another, and the necessary journey of self-discovery that can only be taken by the protagonist alone, there’s much to admire in Hansen-Løve’s film. The central relationship is dealt with subtly, if a little obliquely, and Aarshi Banerjee gives an assured performance as the heroine. But Maya feels less self-possessed than previous efforts, presumably in part due to a less personally detailed familiarity with the subject matter. While it still has the director’s usual judgement of tone and sense for feeling, it somehow, and unusually for a filmmaker so concerned with authenticity and realism, doesn’t always ring true.