‘One motion, one process’: Director Mia Hansen-Løve talks filmmaking process, philosophy in cinema

A woman with red hair and wearing a red shirt smiles looking in the direction of the camera in front of a red background.
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The films of Mia Hansen-Løve are situated at an enigmatic crossroads — they are at once deeply philosophical, dealing with the “big questions” of life, and relatable in the naturalistic way they depict daily life and relationships. There’s a studied thoughtfulness to her work in the precise ways her characters interact with each other and the world. This precision, however, is cast in such a way that her films never come off as lofty.

Hansen-Løve initially came into the world of cinema in 2003 as a critic for the legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Inspired by French film icons such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Gérard Blain, Hansen-Løve started her film career with the production of two short films before moving to the feature film format.

“The short format is complicated for my writing because I work a lot with the passage of time,” Hansen-Løve said in an interview with The Daily Californian (with translation from the filmmaker’s native French from an interpreter).

Another important aspect of Hansen-Løve’s work lies behind the camera — in addition to directing, she has also served as screenwriter on all of her feature films to date. Hansen-Løve described the filmmaking process as a singular entity, more than the component duties of director, writer and editor.

“It’s true that so far I have not been able to work on a film without (writing) the screenplay by myself because it’s all … movement, one flow,” Hansen-Løve said. “The flow starts with the emotion that dictates the writing of an idea … the emotion that carries the screenplay. That flow continues to develop during the filming.”

Hansen-Løve also emphasized the importance of participating in the editing of her films, which she considers the final piece of the process of crafting the full story: “It’s very important for me to be present in the editing room and to select the takes. … I can’t imagine the film being made in pieces. For me it’s one motion, one process,” Hansen-Løve said.

Some of Hansen-Løve’s films bear striking resemblance to her real life — a philosophy professor in “Things to Come” mirrors Hansen-Løve’s professor parents, and her 2014 film “Eden” is loosely based on her brother Sven’s career as a DJ. This autobiographical designation, however, is another sort of misdirection in the categorization of her films. Hansen-Løve described her work as having biographical elements without being explicitly autobiographical: “What I love in film is actually the cathartic experience of really creating a fiction out of those bits of pieces,” she said.

“Philosophical” is another common categorization of Hansen-Løve’s work. This stems from the personal connection as well as the general humanistic tone of her work, with running themes of existentialism and self-reflection in her filmography. Hansen-Løve, however, said that while philosophy has influenced her work, its presence is more rooted in the ways in which it causes questions, rather than being an academic practice.

“All cinema asks philosophical questions, (at least) all of cinema I care about,” Hansen-Løve said. “I grew up with familiarity of this question of doubt, of doubting everything — there is the obsession of doubt that is important for me.”

Hansen-Løve also discussed the use of music in her films, which often leans toward the diegetic. Hansen-Løve said she prefers to show the characters hearing the same things as the audience: “Music is one of those artifices or conventions of cinema that I enjoy as a viewer (and) as an audience. But I don’t like to use it for my films,” Hansen-Løve said. Music is a tool in her films, rather than a cue card guiding the emotional journey of the character.

“I use very, very little music in my films … so, when the music happens, it means something to the character, and the audience is even more impressed by the music because there is so little of it,” Hansen-Løve said.

Hansen-Løve’s most recent films span the expanse of two drastically different subjects and places. The first, “Maya,” which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, is the story of a war journalist who spends a year of recovery in India. The second,“Bergman Island,” is slated to release this year and is about a filmmaker couple that goes to the island of Fårö — the site of many of director Ingmar Bergman’s films — to complete a writing residency.

Like the rest of Hansen-Løve’s work, these two most recent films deal with intense, looming ideas that are tucked within engaging storylines, making for an overall intriguing and thoughtful filmography.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].