Goodbye First Love, the latest from writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (Father of My Children), opens today in New York. FILM COMMENT presents Francisco Valente’s in-depth conversation with the filmmaker, conducted last October in Lisbon.
Although I don’t think you wish to project yourself into a particular film heritage, I believe that some of the feelings that come through in your work also exist in two directors: François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer. In other words, we feel a great sense of freedom in your films and much tenderness towards the actions and doubts of your characters. But it is something that seems to come from yourself, by learning about life through your own path.
Like all cineastes, there are filmmakers that have made a bigger impact in me and to whom I feel closer to. I write all films by myself. I really try to close a door and go inside myself to search for my own truth. It would be a limitation to stick to those cineastes that I look up to. What I admire in them is precisely their sense of independence, how they created their own language and how they plunged into themselves to make their own films. That is what serves to me as a model, not the content of their films but how they created them. That said, Truffaut and Rohmer have always been extremely important filmmakers to me, even before I wanted to make films. But I keep them in a corner of my mind, I do not wish to imitate them. I admire them for who they were, their way of writing and making films and their integrity in doing that. But also because they worked on the coherence of their films as whole and not just film by film, and how the processes of writing and directing films are intimately related to them.
As to freedom, I try to write with one priority in mind: to search for a sense of truth, knowing that if films have poetry in them, it is because of that. And if truth exists in a film, freedom will come along. On the other hand, it is not something that I wish to claim to myself in an ostensible way. I do not see any freedom in films that preach a form of radicalism. If we are looking for some form of truth, it has to come in an implicit way. In film, as in literature, archetypes seem to weigh so much. And whenever we try to escape them, we do reach some form of truth. It’s always a pleasure to see that someone actually sees that in my films, because even though they appear to be introverted or classical, I deeply believe and hope that they’re closer to a tradition which belongs in modernity.
All of your characters seem to live with one particular feeling: how they long to belong to one place. There is a path they must go through in order to get to it, and it is curious to see that your characters often walk in your films. It is also something that comes through in your direction: you seem to have found a place, in cinema, to build your own perspective on life. For instance, the way we see Clémence going to a film theater, in Father of My Children, to see a film produced by her deceased father as if she was looking for him in it. Or the way Camille tries to find herself in architecture—the study of places—in Goodbye First Love.
All of my films are based on the idea of a path in a spiritual and literal sense. I love filming actors when they walk. This is not the reason why I do it, but I noticed that it’s something that occurs a lot in Robert Bresson’s films. He often shoots actors walking and pays much attention to their steps, their hands, and their gestures. Much of a person’s aura and presence comes from the rhythm of their gait, and the mystery of their presence has a lot to do with something that lives in those silent traits. It is something that also lives in the heart of my work.
My films are portraits of people who are looking for a meaning to their existence. The question of what gives sense to our lives is one that obsesses me, I always come back to it. It has always been clear to me, even when I was very young, that life could only make sense if it was a quest. As such, my films tend to show a path we must walk in order to coincide with our destiny. But it is also the paradox of my films: people often oppose freedom to destiny, as if it was something fatal or imposed by external forces, whereas freedom would mean to be in control of our actions and break free from destiny. But this is not the way I feel at all. Destiny is something more subtle and which can resemble resignation if we look at it in a superficial way, but it really has to do with understanding the world. I was really moved when someone told me a quote from Renoir as a reaction to the last shot of Goodbye First Love: “To understand life is to let yourself be carried away like a cork in a river.” This is exactly how I feel about life. Unfortunately, freedom is not something that I can quite explain through words, but I believe it must deal with the freedom of thought and trying to understand the world. And that means ourselves and others, including our destiny.
A quest is something that also brings solitude. You write your own films by yourself, and in the same way, we also feel that your characters are completely immersed in their feelings and what they truly mean. On the other hand, you also seem to put a lot of faith in the future and what it can bring with other people, with much faith in love, poetry, and creation.
All the films that I have written are about love, it is something that plays a central role in them. It is what weakens my characters but also what gives them strength. In my first film, All Is Forgiven, the fact that the female character is ready to forgive her father and see him again is what makes her so vulnerable but also what makes her feel stronger. In Father of My Children, it is the male character’s love for cinema that leads him to a form of auto-destruction and which ultimately kills him, but it is also what springs life into his soul and makes him grow as a person. In Goodbye First Love, it is Camille’s love for this boy that makes her so melancholic and what consumes her, for it appears to be a doomed love, but there is a direct link between the strength of her love and the birth of her vocation.
Your characters accord much importance to their feelings and how it influences them in their lives. It is the most important thing in the world to them, and this is a particularly touching aspect of your films. They keep great faith in their emotions and see them as something much superior to anything that may concern them in a more practical way. It is something we witness when 15-year-old Camille says, with such certainty, that Sullivan is “the man of my life.”
That is something that has always been obvious to me. When Camille says that and her mother sneers at her, I’m often confronted by people on the weight Camille lives with in her adolescence because of one boy, as if it was much too extraordinary. But I have always felt that way and seen the world under that perspective. Feelings have always been the most important thing in the world to me, it is what makes us fall in love and want to be with those that we love. I have always lived love in an absolute way and it has always seemed to me that the world goes around like that.
I was also lucky to grow with parents who are both philosophy teachers and to be raised under the idea that we must seek beauty and good, to value the importance of love and be faithful to it, without necessarily having the answers to those questions. I was raised with the idea that what’s important in life is not to earn more money and to be in a particular place in the social scale, but to strive for truth and beauty. My parents chose a path of intellectual and spiritual questions, which isn’t a particularly easy one and doesn’t necessarily constitute the best model. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but what they have passed on to me is to assume and to put these questions at the center of my existence.
We understand that love is important for your characters in order to understand the world and to be in touch with it, but in a way that is also modest and bashful. It is first and foremost an internal quest. The love scenes of Goodbye First Love are also in that vein. They seem to deal with an internal quest and not just a physical experience.
All spiritual questions do not withhold a more physical and sensual side. They are one and the same thing. Physical love is at the heart of the film, it is, first of all, a very carnal love. It lives through sensuality and physical contact, it expresses itself through caresses. That is at the foreground of the film and their love could not survive without that physical side. The end of the film in Ardèche is also a celebration of the beauty of life as a place of sensations: the pleasure of being under the sun and to feel its heat, to feel the wind blowing around us. But the way we learn about life as a more immediate and sensual experience is inseparable from a spiritual quest.
As to the representation of sexuality in cinema, I tried to shoot it in an intimate way. We do see them naked and caressing and kissing each other, but I didn’t try to show it through crude scenes or in an ostensive or pornographic way. I thought a lot about how to shoot this when I was writing it because I always feel uneasy with the way some of these scenes are usually made. I feel that there is something which mustn’t be shown, not for moral reasons or because it would be too shocking to show them, but if I did shoot them in a more explicit way, it would not have brought us closer to its truth.
In other words, showing sex on screen in its full nudity doesn’t bring us closer to what we feel when making love to someone. When two people are making love, they are usually not seeing themselves doing it. It is a very physical experience, but it belongs not only to the domain of physical sensations but also something that is invisible. It would be a complete illusion to implement a third and external look to show raw moments, like some filmmakers do as if to show what sex really is, because that is not where its truth lies, at least not in the external gaze that looks upon it. To hide these love scenes would also be excessive and fake as to what I was trying to tell about their sexuality, and to show it in a rawer way to shock people would be completely different from what I was trying to do. It would be a voyeur look that really doesn’t exist when we’re making love to someone in our intimacy.
It is a very delicate question because, as a spectator, I rarely feel satisfied with love scenes or feel them as real. In some films, when we see a naked woman and her breasts are concealed from us, I immediately see that as very conventional, not as a love scene but as just another scene among many others. This mostly happens in more commercial kind of films, where we always find the same kind of shot which says nothing about that person’s intimacy. It really shocks me and it is the contrary of what I am trying to do, which is to bring us closer to a sense of truth. I also feel uneasy towards the other extreme of a more “auteur cinema” where sexuality is shown to its full extension. I see a lot of voyeurism in that perspective and also something that drives us away from the truth. It should be something that resides in a nuance which doesn’t belong to either archetype, and that is difficult.
It is also something that shows the refusal of artifice in your films. Goodbye First Love is a film that covers adolescence and the first years of adulthood, but we do not see Camille age in a physical way.
That happens for the exact same reason. I’m sure many people would be more pleased to see Lola [Créton] with fake wrinkles and a different hair color or if I had made her look older, for it would correspond to the usual aging standards that we usually see in films. In real life, we do actually get older but we cannot reproduce that in a film in an authentic way. The only way we could do that is to be artificial, and that is the worst solution. To see something like that always distances myself from the film that I’m watching. It is a delicate question, especially when you make a film that covers several years in one’s lifetime. On the other hand, I could also have chosen an older actress instead of Lola and make her look younger than she really was. But it was much more interesting to pick a younger actress with the same age as her character in the beginning of the film because her youth would be essential for the basis of it: a certain purity and virginity, to show someone who was experiencing an adult sex life while still being very young. If I had that sense of truth in the beginning, everything else could be projected onto her for the rest of the film.
Lola was 16 years old when she shot the film. There was something in her voice in the beginning of it that I couldn’t have found if I had cast someone who was 19. She doesn’t always have the tone or the physical characteristics of someone older, but at the same time, I could suggest those things through her silence and other things that deal with what she expresses later on and how she changes the way she speaks. Without really being conscious of it, due to the rhythm of those scenes, her silence and her tone, she really managed to bring something that shows time passing and how to live with a particular experience in her life.
Instead of insisting in those physical changes, you prefer to give a chance to your actors to work around that through their own expression, thus choosing a 16-year-old actress and give her the opportunity to play that kind of role instead of a 25-year-old who would maybe play it more easily.
I don’t feel comfortable with this convention that has spread in cinema that makes 25 year old actresses play teenage roles. I prefer to choose someone who is younger because there is something unique in that. It is precious to have that youthfulness in a film and I was amazed by something very mysterious and exciting to shoot: how a very young actress can be conscious of maturity and have the intuition of what it can be like without really having it for herself. It is very beautiful to see that. Lola is really an adolescent—she has nothing to do with the way her character behaves in the second part of the film. Nevertheless, that is the moment where we see her vocation and intuition playing. It almost made me cry when I saw it because I realized how much we have this range of human emotions in ourselves. We can see that in every scene she’s meeting Sullivan again in the second part of the film. There is a kind of melancholy in her which is no longer the same that we find in the first part of the film, where her suffering is more apparent and not yet appeased by the maturity she gained by living with a wound that longs to heal. The way she finds that in her gait, her calmness, and her own sadness; those are all things that are far away from who she really is. It is something beautiful to shoot and it wouldn’t be the same to film someone who really is like that and who would project herself in her own memory of adolescence.
Do you particularly admire actors and the role their vocation plays in films?
The process of choosing actors is almost sacred to me. I do feel passionate about them and the moment I cast them. An actor gives his soul to a film, it is through them that a film turns into fiction. My films usually come from a place that is very close to me, often from an autobiographical one or something that is intimately related to my experiences and the people I have known. But the actors I choose give their own presence to the film, they eventually take charge of it and liberate me from the film’s subject. I do feel close to them the moment I cast them, but at the same time, it is interesting to see how they take my film to other places, sometimes one that is far away from who they really are. It creates something that has its own life form.
You also seem to give great importance to the places where you shoot. Goodbye First Love is a film with much light in it, even though it’s really about darkness and the path we must make to come out of it. But we feel that you have a very personal relation to the light of a certain place, a forest or a museum. I imagine it is something you feel rather close to.
Yes, it is. It is something that also amused me when writing the scene that discusses the importance of darkness and glow in architecture. It was a way of facing myself. To me, film has always been a quest for meaning and light. Cinema is very simple: it is childhood, light, and the search for a meaning. At the same time, I do not theorize what I write, I do it in a rather instinctive way. Later on, I try to understand why I did write something and I realize that there is something rather dark in all of my films. They always seem to play on a dialectic between shadow and light; there is a self-destructive and luminous side in all of my characters. People often tell me that my films are full of light, but they’re as dark as they’re luminous. Cinema lives around that in the same way that painting does, by trying to capture the beauty that comes from a certain light or the radiance that comes shining from a human face.
The sets have a great deal of importance to me. It is also something that lead me to architecture and wanting to make a film around it. I do not know that much about architecture itself but film does have a strong link to it. In that sense, the sets belong in the dramaturgy of every film that I write. I often think that there should be a scene in a particular set without really knowing why, and it is only after that that I understand why it can make the story go forth. Sometimes, I think of scenery as blocks of light or colors and sensations, and it is then that the film starts to build itself. I often write a scene because something must be played in that set, and it has to do with a certain light or something that comes from within, but it must be present at that time, like a piece in a puzzle. It is only afterwards that I know what the characters will say and why they’re there. For instance, when Camille and Sullivan are in Ardèche picking up cherries around a savage house and she says to him that “this is the house of my dreams”—I could have easily cut those scenes out, but I believe that the heart of the film lies in them. It is the place that unites the love she feels for that boy and for architecture. Places play an important part in love stories, we often associate feelings to the places where we’ve been.
Are you preparing a new film?
I am in the final stages of writing a film called Eden that is divided in two different parts. It is an ambitious project but I do not know in what measure in may be produced. It covers 20 years of the life of an electronic music DJ in Paris from the 1990s until today. It’s about the destiny of a DJ.