Interview: Mia Hansen-Løve
Mia Hansen-Løve sets her latest feature in the world of French house music, in which her brother, Sven, achieved ephemeral recognition in the 1990s and early 2000s as part of the group Cheers. Again portraying a life over several years as in her past features like Goodbye, First Love, Hansen-Løve creates a portrait of an era and a musician, Paul (Félix de Givry), who sees his chill musical utopia gradually turn into his own personal oblivion as times, fashions, and people move on.
FILM COMMENT talked with the director about Eden, which opened on Friday, after its U.S. premiere in last year’s New York Film Festival.
Electronic dance music may not seem a very cinematic subject on the face of it, or more specifically, dance DJs. They’re in the background, and it’s not quite like other musical performers. Was visualizing this world a challenge?
I never had the feeling that the music wasn’t photogenic, but from the start, I was very much aware of how difficult it was to do it properly, the way I wanted to do it. I didn’t like the way clubs were filmed usually, even in films that I love. After I had written this film and I watched those films again, to analyze how it was filmed, I realized that it had nothing to do with our life, our experience of nightclubbing. Becoming aware of that was extremely stimulating and made the subject of the film even more stimulating.
What were some of the movies that you were looking at?
We were looking at James Gray’s film We Own the Night, and Michael Mann’s Collateral, where you have some nightclub scenes. And we were looking at some bad films that I don’t remember. The example of Michael Mann and James Gray is interesting because these are actually films that I love, filmmakers that I love. But what I was looking for was some kind of realism and authenticity, and through that realism, even more so, some poetry about that, and about the love for music and the feeling for music.
Realism is not something ideological for me—it’s not something I think is more relevant than other things. It’s just my own way to get to what actually interests me. Even we knew from the start that some people maybe wouldn’t like this clear choice of not depicting the club in a way that is so glamorous or like a fantasy. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, for instance, is a great film, but the idea is to be on the side of the imagination, and the fantasy world, the dream world. I just find it more interesting to get to that in a less frontal way, like not try to literally stick to our idea of what imagination or craziness or being on drugs is, but to film as if you are more distanced and you look at things in a more rational way, but then find it but through a more subtle, indirect, and invisible way.
One film that I liked a lot and I thought was maybe more connected in terms of how it filmed the nightclub or this atmosphere was Millennium Mambo by Hou Hsiao-hsien. It’s the one film that I really felt close to in terms of the aesthetic, the rhythm of the film, the slowness of it, the contrast to the nervous beat of the song. That’s something I enjoyed a lot. And I also enjoyed rewatching 24 Hour Party People. There was something raw and authentic about the film, but again, it wasn’t what we were looking for.
When you were trying to achieve this realism, were you drawing on your own memories or mostly your brother’s memories?
Both really. I went a lot to the parties. The main difference is, when it had to do with the early years, I really needed precision from my brother because I wasn’t there. But after 1994, 1995, I started to be at these parties almost every time. I was like a Cheers addict. But the main difference is more from the technical point of view. My experience of house music was as somebody who basically just dances and has friends there, knows the songs by heart but doesn’t know the names of the musicians, whereas my brother’s experience was much more technical. He was a specialist of house and garage music. Now I feel, after three years spent on this film, like the others, like a specialist.
For most audiences, it won’t be as if you’ve centered the film on a rock star that everyone knows. That’s part of what was so interesting about Inside Llewyn Davis, because it showed a guy who’s on the outside. And your movie does both: Paul’s on the inside and the outside.
I shouldn’t start talking about Inside Llewyn Davis because once I start, I can’t stop. From the start, I knew that I didn’t want to make a film about Daft Punk. For me, telling the story of the one who doesn’t succeed gives a chance for the film to be much more universal. Also it gave me possibilities to tell a story that’s much more nuanced and more complex to build around. But honestly, I had troubles getting this film financed, and I think one of the reasons was my choice to tell a story that was about a rise but also a fall, and that ultimately becomes melancholic. He’s not a star of the French charts. He’s always some kind of outsider.
I chose to depict the music that I loved, the music that I spent time dancing to, but it’s music that was always underground, even for the scene. Garage music, this type of house music, even though there was a short period of glory, was always less popular than other branches of electronic music. I think that has to do with what I actually love about it, which is the presence of the voices, the warmth of it, the lyricism of it, and some kind of naiveté. It’s a music that has a lot to do with gospel, and a lot of the people who made it were actually Christians, and it’s about God. And I think I enjoyed that very much when I was 16, this contrast between modernity and electronic music, dance music and at the same time a kind of naïve and idealistic approach to the world.
Yeah, I think in music films there’s often a tendency to focus more on the fame aspect.
That’s what I enjoyed so much about the Coen Brothers film. The first time I heard about their film is from Greta Gerwig, who told me about it because she had just read my script and just before, for some reason, she had read their script. She noticed the common parallel there was in both films, between Paul and Llewyn Davis. I watched the trailer again and again, because I love their films, but I mean this one was like, oh, it’s meant for me. It’s my Coen film, you know. Then I watched the film and it totally devastated me. I just love the film so much. The choice that I find so daring is that they made this film so depressing and so much about somebody who’s a loser but who you still can love. At least, I love him. I find it extremely moving. And I also I saw it as the Coen Brothers’ film about, what if one of us would die? Like, “I wouldn’t overcome your death.” As if it was a film about the possibility of the other guy’s death. That film is very important for me.
Another thing that was really moving in Eden was looking at this feeling that someone else succeeded while you were working on something that didn’t work out. It sounds like a potentially common artistic anxiety—that you want to be dedicated to your voice and your craft but you have no way of knowing whether everyone is going to follow or appreciate it.
My brother, I know, was depressed to feel that people just didn’t follow him anymore. But the thing that ultimately loses him, makes him not successful anymore, is his fidelity to the music. There is always this idea that if you wanted to succeed, there are things that you should have done and didn’t do. You could work more, compose music, maybe DJ, and other things. But he was always so faithful to this specific music, and the problem is the music didn’t change. It’s a niche, a small kind of music, that wasn’t really meant for being re-created or adapted to fashions. And at some point, it’s because he sticks to this music that people didn’t care anymore. It’s a very sad image to see the guy who stays there and sees people pass by him. He’s more and more alone.
I just want to say something about the relationship he has to the Daft Punk. I’m thinking about that because we were talking about Inside Llewyn Davis. Something that I care a lot about is that it’s never about envy, jealousy, or bitterness. Even though he’s totally aware of the contrast between them and the fact that they became great stars and he didn’t, he loves their music and he still considers the music as part of his own history. And that’s beautiful about this character too, because he is really somebody who’s loving ultimately. At the end when he meets them again, I think the viewers might feel some kind of bitterness—but that comes from us, because we see the contrast and it makes us feel uncomfortable. I don’t think for him that’s the case. For him, when he listens to the music, of course there’s some solitude, and some sadness, and some melancholy but there is also a very strong feeling of the music as belonging to him in a way. And I find this apparent paradox is very important for me in the film.
My brother sometimes has a tough relationship to himself—he’s severe and hard on himself sometimes, and the film sometimes echoes that in a way that’s kind of tough for him. But one thing that was gratifying for him is that so many people said: “This my story. It’s me.” My brother is enjoying that so much. I think it’s about life also: most of us, a lot of us, had some dreams that they couldn’t fulfill.
You’ve said that what led you into Eden was partly the desire to depict something distinctive about your generation.
Yes, it’s hard to define it, because the easiest way I have is to compare it with the previous one—that’s what happened to me when I watched Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas’s film. It’s a film that played a role in my inspiration for Eden. Olivier was trying to talk about his adolescence and what it had been to be 20 in the Seventies. You see how important politics, ideologies were to young people—this idea that it gave all this meaning to life. And I think in Eden, they are exactly the children of these people, that’s our parents actually—well, that’s my parents. And for us, not only didn’t we inherit the idea of the importance of the political, but we kind of rejected it. Not that people didn’t have political ideals around me. People were all more or less democrats, with leftist ideas, but they didn’t like the idea of being determined by ideologies and that politics defines the vision of life.
So they were looking for something else, and I’m not saying that music or house music replaced that, because it doesn’t have the same content. People from older generations say: “Well, it’s empty, there’s nothing.” But I think there is idealism not necessarily in the lyrics or in the message themselves, but in the way of living. There is something about living in the present and not projecting yourself in the future, and maybe people would say: “You cannot build anything with that. You cannot construct the future with the idea of partying.” OK, that’s for sure, it’s ephemeral, you can’t make theories or philosophy out of it, but it’s a way of living. It’s a way of living where you care about the poetry of life, about the instant, about the present, about love basically, and maybe it’s very naïve, even childish. But I do think people I’ve known at the time, and my friends, and especially my brother’s friends who were a little bit older, they did really live like that, they did live 20 years of their life for the music and for the love of music.
And with the people I’m talking about in my film—who are inspired by real people who created these parties who were extremely famous in the Nineties, 2000s—these were free parties. It was the first time in Paris you had these huge parties in clubs. What I mean by free is that they were parties that were extremely mixed in terms of age, culture. You had at the same time people who were very fashion fancy, but you also had people from the suburbs. Everybody could go there, and that’s why it was so crowded, so packed. It was a real idealism in the way people were living, and it’s difficult to disconnect it totally from the fact that they were taking drugs.
I understand why people would think this is all in vain and leads to nowhere, but I’m actually very moved by people who make the choice to live for poetry. I don’t know if poetry is the right word in English. You can say that in French: when I say poetry, poetry is a way of living.
What would be the French word?
Poésie. But in French it could have two meanings, la poésie like writing poetry but la poésie could also mean the beauty of life.
Going over the past like this with your brother, did you feel closer to him or were you aware of everything that was in the movie already?
We’ve been close forever. We were already very close to each other, but we didn’t see each other every day, like we did for the past three years. We were together all the time as if we had become like the Safdie Brothers or the Coen Brothers, and it was totally new for me. Sven wasn’t only involved in the process of writing: he was there in the process of financing, the actors… The film was complicated to do technically: all these nightclub scenes, crowds, extras, the clothes, the music. I rented a small flat where I was preparing the film, and my brother and I had some mix tables there and he used to rehearse with the different actors. So sometimes I was working in my office and they were in the next room working on the music, talking about it, learning how to mix two vinyls. Félix—the main actor—Sven, and I, we were basically together all the time like brothers and sister. And Sven helped me with the location scouting, meeting the people from this scene who were helping us, working on the lights for every single club scene, choosing Félix’s clothes. We shot at his apartment for Paul’s apartment.
It goes to the heart of realism that you were talking about, because that’s different from treating the music as part of the setting.
The big challenge for us was that we wanted the music to be inside the scene, part of the scene and not something that comes from the outside and that’s ultimately projected over the images. It had to be concrete, and we spent hours and hours with Sven trying to find out how to make the music this way, how to make it in a way that we wouldn’t lose the emotion, because of course if you play too realistic, too raw, too dirty, as it actually is in the real clubs, at the end you don’t feel the music anymore. So the big thing for us was to make the music really alive and not lose the lyricism.
Some scenes [in clubs] where they actually talk, the sound is the sound from the shooting. Nobody does that because it’s very tough—it’s crazy to do that actually. You edit them to be exactly at the same time, because you have the music. When actors act with direct music, it’s never the same energy than when there’s no music. I did so many different takes: with music, without music, with the music less loud and everything. And the type of the energy, the way they raise their voice, how they approach one another, and speaking in the ears—that’s something so typical for real club life—you never get it the right way if you do it without any music, just pretending. Like in the club scene of The Social Network people really scream. Usually in club scenes the music is so loud, the extras are all exaggerated with big muscles, and they are dancing on tables and everything. It’s so fake and then the dialogue scene comes, and then it’s so quiet, and suddenly you don’t hear the music.
When you were talking about the “dirty” club sound, it reminded me of the terrific scene in Eden when they’re talking about the particular qualities of the beats. Like: “That’s a feminine beat.”
Oh, thanks for saying this, because we almost cut it out. But we thought it was important to show Paul actually working on the music, and the scene was also so typical for what it had been for Sven to work on the music, and the kind of discussions he had about the difference of sounds. It was important for us to show the reality of creating music, not as something abstract where you just hear the CDs.
Now, I remember reading somewhere that Eden was originally going to be two films. Could you talk about how that evolved?
Yeah, I think it’s because of Carlos. I think it’s Olivier’s fault. [Laughs] I enjoyed so much the writing of the film. It was so exciting, the feeling of exploring the territory that miraculously nobody had really explored yet, the house music scene in Paris. In the first version it was really like two films, and it was clear: the first part was about the rise and the second part was the fall. They were the same length, and my idea was to release the first part and then, one week later, the second part. The crazy thing is that I actually found people who liked the idea and were ready to produce the film, because they were the French distributors of my previous films. They are the producers of Lars von Trier, and at the same time they were just doing Nymphomaniac, so they thought, oh yeah, we can just do it again. Ultimately, we were so far from the kind of money we need to make this film that I had to cut a big part of the script and make it one single film—which is fine with me. But there are some scenes that I wish I could have filmed.
Like what sort of stuff?
It’s a detail but something that I really miss in the film is a scene in a vinyl shop. These places have been so important in Paris for DJs, where they used to meet and talk about the music. We had this scene that wasn’t dramatically useful—but no scenes in my film are dramatically useful anyway [laughs]. It was just about Paul buying his vinyls and meeting all the DJs, and you could just feel all the excitement and you could just feel that something was happening. And one other thing that I regret was a scene at the beginning of the second part. They are on holiday, it was like 20 pages, three of them with another girlfriend that’s disappeared from the script, this Swedish girl. I loved it, it just made the film start in a totally different place. If somebody was to finance it, we are still ready to go there. It wouldn’t even be that expensive: it would just be the house, a boat, and three actors!
So your next film is your last film. [Laughter] But no, you said you’re working on a new film about a professor. [L’Avenir, or “The Future,” began shooting today.]
Both of my parents are philosophy teachers, and it’s a film that is a portrait of a woman. It’s a little bit inspired by my mother’s life. I don’t think it’s going to be a dark film, because it’s almost written like a comedy, but the subject is dark. Because it’s really about solitude, what it is to be a woman of that age when the world falls apart because her husband leaves her, her children go away, her mother dies. And it’s about what it is to be a woman at that age. So it’s very different from Eden, and I actually wrote it while I was struggling to make Eden and I was just getting crazy because of the waiting. I wrote this film not knowing if I was going to get to the end of this project, and I started to think of Isabelle Huppert for the part and she just fit it so well that it became real thanks to her.
For this project, as with Eden, these are films about people that I know so well. I’m not saying that you need to know the people or talk about only the thing you know so well, but I do think that it can be a good thing. It’s something that Rohmer actually said to people who’d reproached him that he just made films about the same things. He was always saying: “I make films about the things I know.” And I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it differently, because I think great filmmakers make films about things they don’t know at the start and at the end they know it. But for me it’s interesting to show when you have such an intimate knowledge of this people and the work they’re doing. Living for 20 years with two parents who are philosophy teachers, I feel like I have an insight into a point of view that’s maybe interesting.
You are also so skillful at depicting these points of view over large spans of time, starting from your first movie up through this one.
My first movie is maybe the one that’s most connected to Eden, because it’s over 15 years. But it’s different, because in Eden it’s 20 years but you are following him constantly—and the film is about that, actually. It’s about this feeling that time, the fluidity of the passing of time, can be dangerous, because you don’t feel the time passing. But actually, I feel like I’m done with that. Not that I’m not going to come back to the passing of time—like all filmmakers who write their own scripts, I have my own obsessions and I just can’t get rid of them. It’s the way I’m writing. It’s not like something I choose, I just can’t do differently. But now I have several different projects, and they all try to be more concentrated. The next one with Isabelle Huppert is one year, two years, and I have another one that’s just three months.
My dream is to make a film that’s within one or two days, and to be able to tell a story that doesn’t need me to re-create the whole life and past of the characters. I would love to do that, but it’s just sometimes, you know, the way you are. For me, it feels as if ultimately all of my films lead to the present, but I need the present to be full of memories and moments that I want the viewer to experience with me. I enjoy the present, but I enjoy the possibility when I film a scene to have all these associations with other things. And I think making stories that happen in such a long stretch of time allows me to create this, to have all the dimensions in every scene.
Could you talk about the look of Eden, and how you decided upon your visual approach? One thing that struck me is periodically you have these beautiful wide shots, very often with people who are to one side of the frame, like when Paul’s walking on the beach with Louise. They’re powerful amidst the hustle and bustle of the rest of the movie.
The first defining decision for the visual style of the film was to film in ‘scope. It was new for me, and it’s something I wasn’t really attracted to in my earlier films. There was something about ‘scope I didn’t like, as if I felt it was something a little bit pretentious or pompous: “Oh, this is going to be a big film!” But I realized when I made this film that it was totally obvious to do it in ‘scope, only because of the scale of the film. It’s 20 years, more ambitious than my previous films, with a lot of scenes with many actors. I did screen tests, and I realized that getting a larger frame allowed me to have more people in it, and it fit a film about a group of friends too. When I was shooting, there was not a single scene where I wasn’t grateful to myself that I chose ‘scope, for the club scenes and every single day.
For the club scenes, I was trying to find a rhythm that was independent from the music, to find my own rhythm. I wasn’t trying to imitate the movement, the rapidity of the music, which is something that I found to be a convention about how we film music or clubs. What I was trying to do was something a bit different: there is the rhythm of the music, the music that I hope people will enjoy because of the way I use the sound, but at the same time I hoped to create some kind of distance so that I have my own rhythm, which is the rhythm of the film. This consideration determined the choices in the shots—how long it should be, the choreography of the scenes.
Another thing that I think is specific to this film was our choice not to add any light in the club scenes. Because we were shooting digital, it allowed us to be extremely dark. I wanted to shoot film, but I just couldn’t, it was just too expensive. But the good thing is that the way I wanted to light and film the club, I would never have been able to do it if I wasn’t shooting digital. When we didn’t need to do that, it allowed us to stick to the specific lighting of the clubs, to build the light only from the real lights of the places. We were using lights and types of lighting that are connected to specific clubs and to every specific time, too, because with the passing of time, the lights change, of course. It’s not the same lights at all in 2002 and 2005. Denis Lenoir, the DP, and I were defining the lights together with the technician of the club, and my brother kept saying if it was right for the time. And also thanks to the fact that we didn’t add any light and that all the light was coming from the ceiling, we could film 360 degrees. Once it was done, we could shoot without ever stopping again—we were totally free.
Denis Lenoir is such a great DP—I’ve known him forever because he filmed Late August, Early September by Olivier Assayas, that’s how I met him originally. He also did Carlos. And he is pretty much rock ’n’ roll. What I mean is he’s the kind of guy who’s so supportive of the film, he’s not trying to impose on you, he’s really trying to get inside the spirit of the film. He was ready immediately, and we could just film for hours. It helped me a lot because I needed time, I needed freedom, and mostly, I needed souplesse, not to be stiff.
You mentioned Denis Lenoir had shot films with Olivier Assayas. I’m curious, do you and Olivier Assayas discuss your movies much with each other?
Well, I keep on asking him for advice. [Laughs] I don’t think he needs my advice that much. But I consult him all the time. He never shows up at any of my shoots, and I don’t at his shoots, ever. But I spend a lot of time working on sketches and stuff, not a storyboard, but I do sketches and I take notes. It takes me a huge amount of time because I do it over and over and over until the shooting and I keep changing it until the end. But I still need to think about it and, yeah, I like to talk about it with him—not that I feel I couldn’t find the right solution without talking about it, but I just enjoy it. I enjoy the dialogue. It fascinates me.
That must be special for you as a filmmaker, because it’s fairly rare to have someone that does the same job as you do.
Yeah, I want to do a film about that. Two filmmakers. And then maybe I’ll be over with the autobiographical thing. [Laughs]