I was extremely taken with Mia Hansen-Løve's feature, Goodbye, First Love (original French title: Une amour de jeunesse) when I saw it at the 2011 New York Film Festival. At that time I interviewed its director, ostensibly for this start-up for which I was editing an online movie magazine. Then the online movie magazine folded, Hansen-Løve's film got a relatively unheralded U.S. theatrical release, and now it's on DVD. The interview kind of fell through the cracks, but as the film is part of my 2012 best-of list, I thought now might not be a terrible time to run the interview, in which I ask long-winded questions and Hansen-Løve provides patient, intelligent answers. It is probably best consumed after you see the film, which I highly recommend.
Some Came Running: I wanted to ask you about the relationship the film has to the lead character. You never, despite the fact that there's a suicide attempt and there's all sorts of problems, the film never looks at her through the perspective of pathology. The film seems very much with her, both in the shooting style and just the way her character is portrayed. And I was wondering the extent to which that was a really conscious idea of treating this theme or something that evolved, to the extent you even thought of differentiating the film in terms of its perspective from other films about young love, in other words.
Mia Hansen-Løve: This film, like my other ones, are actually about things that could be very melodramatic. For me in a way it could be a tragedy. I mean this girl, she's crazy about a boy who always goes away and leaves her. She attempts—she tries to commit suicide and she overcomes it, but not really. And then he comes back and then leaves her again. It could be really big melodrama. But I never tried to do a melodrama. I always tried just, as in my previous films, I want my children to look at it in a way that so that the film doesn't belong to a genre but is simply a film about life. To me the film cannot be about reality, about real life, if it's part of the genre. It's a kind of paradox because as a viewer, as a spectator, I don't have any problem with that and I can be crazy about film, I can really love some films that are melodrama. But it's not the same thing when you are a spectator and then when you make your own films. You don't try to get the same things. And as a spectator, I'm very open. But as a film maker I try to be as honest as I can about life and about my experience. And I feel if I tell a story I want it to be as—I want to try to transmit a feeling of truth, and not—even if at the end people—I don't try to make people cry as much as possible or to make them laugh. It's not that I don't care about that but to me it's not as much. I prefer that they, when they go out of the film, maybe they're not so sad as they could be if I put the music at this point or if I make more dramatic scene. But I prefer that they have a feeling of truth and of reality. That's what I try to get.
SCR: It's interesting that the divorce of the parents when the father is all of a sudden no longer there, it's not quite treated as an afterthought but in a lot of other stories about adolescence, parents breaking up would be seen as a kind of central event. And here it's just something that happens. And in a way it helps focus the centrality on the love story. But in a way there's something about that that's very true to an adolescent's own perception.
HANSEN-LØVE: Yes, because I think in many films the relationship to parents is very much dramatized, like many films adolescents like fight with their parents all the time, or if the parents get split, it's like a big tragedy. And I don't say it's not, maybe it is, but it's not my experience. My parents were split when I was 20, and I felt very sad about it, but it didn't look like—it didn't look dramatic. And I think that there is something true about that. And to me it would have been some kind of betrayal if I had—if by writing my script I would have made it, emphasized it, to make it look more like it looks in films. And also it's true that as you say, I try to be in the—in Camille's perspective and at that time her own love, her own problems with her lover, is everything. In this way, the—actually it's much—maybe much more important than what she thinks, but the relation her parents have and the fact that they are separated is almost—is in the background, because the main problem is the boy that she thinks is the most important thing in her life.
SCR: I'm interested in how you—I guess arrived is maybe not the right question—but there's something about the way the film is shot. It seems very almost naturalistic, an it seems—you're not—the camera's relation to the characters is always—seems very sympathetic without being obtrusively so. You're not following from over their shoulders, you're always—mostly the female lead. But even when you separate from her and you're with certain of the other characters, the camera is always with them in a way that strikes me as very—I don't want to get too—they're always with the characters, in both just the view but also the affinity. And it reminds me a little bit of Renoir.
HANSEN-LØVE: It's funny that you talk about that because I tried to talk a lot about that before and because it's so great, that matters a lot to me actually. It's difficult to say it in English but I'm going to try. Because style is everything to me. I mean style is very important to me. I think you cannot disconnect what you want to say to how you want to say it. But I'm obsessed with the idea of being transparent in style, of trying to reach a style that you don't see. I am obsessed with having it sort of erase itself, the style. I try to be very discreet, just I follow the movement, I am just with the characters, I try to find the right distance. But I also try to make this sobriety itself not too obvious, you know? Not be too rigid because it can go to the other extreme. It's all a matter of nuance and being in the right distance, being not too far and not too close. It's merely a matter of nuance. And I like the idea of sort of not being ideological about style. For instance, when I made my first film I had been writing on films before for Cahiers, and I had noticed that many of young film makers when they make their first film they want to impose upon themselves a very strong principle about how they film so that it looks radical. And to me that is some kind of…evasion. It's a way of not taking a risk,for me. I think it's a very easy way to appropriate a style. But to me style is something that you have to reach little by little, it's something that you learn and it's not something that is given to you. For me, style is a long work and you need a lot of humility for that and that's what I'm trying to do when I film. That's why sometimes I could be tempted to film only in like in a camera—hand-held camera or to film only in like fixed shots or...it’s hard to explain but I always felt like it wouldn't be really honest to make the film like that. Because it would be to prove this as the most important thing, and this is not really the most important thing. I love Rohmer, and it's not to say of course I don't mean that my film looks like Rohmer's film, really not, but there is a sentence that someone told me after seeing my film and it keesp—it's crazy how it stays in my mind since that. The sentence is that I—maybe it's famous but I do not know—he said, to understand life is to let yourself be carried by it like a cork in a river.
SCR: Or a hat.
HANSEN-LØVE: Yeah, it made me crazy, this sentence, because I did not know this sentence and that's so much what I like—what I try to say in the end of my film when she is at the river.
SCR: Two questions about the span of time in the film. You go from 1999 to about 2006, 2007. It's a span of 8 years. And at what point during the production or production design or actual shooting is there a point where—how much attention do you pay to the period detail when you're trying to shoot something that, say, takes place in 1999, and when do you sort of let go of trying to fix it too much?
HANSEN-LØVE: I was pretty compulsive. I was very compulsive about things in terms of what you saw, in terms of like for instance cars, that dated period, and the urbanism of the city, because Paris in 10 years has changed enormously and it alters the atmosphere. It's very, very significant and so I was very concerned that in terms of billboard signs, etc., that they be accurate in terms of the period. For instance, 10 years ago you didn't have the bike lanes that we have everywhere now in Paris for the bike and the bike is pretty much important in the film. So those kind of things. I try when I filmed him 10 years ago I tried to film—I film in places where you don't have these signs everywhere. So my accent in terms of that was really on the exterior details, and it was not for instance on the physical changes that the characters might have endured over the course of time, which I didn't emphasize.
SCR: Which leads to my second question which is about Lola Créton's performance, which is unbelievably terrific. And how in the 1999 scene she seems very much 15, very—what's the word?—gamine-esque, maybe. And then she grows up. She becomes a young woman just the way she carries herself, just the very way that she changes the way she walks. From the beginning to the end it's a complete transformation. She actually grows up before your eyes. And yet she had not aged at all and in fact now she's 17. What do you think it is about her? It's an amazing—between your direction and her capability, it's a remarkable thing that she has done. And how was the process of working that through with her?
HANSEN-LØVE: Thank you. I think—I feel the same, I mean I think not everybody can see that because the changes are not so exterior obvious. Some people may think she doesn't change that much, but I feel just like you. I feel it's quite extraordinary the way she changes from the—it looks like it comes from the inside. She changes, not like in things that you can really define very easily, but she changes in a way—in what goes out of—from her eyes and her looking away to look into people, in her way to talking, in her way to walk in the places of the silences in her—when she talks and when she stop and listen. I mean the rhythm of her way of being is so different. And I still find it—myself I find it extraordinary. And I think in a way the thing that moves me the most when I look at the film, it's not because it's—it's not the film itself because it's so close—I'm not moved by what I'm telling because it's so close to me. But more I'm moved by her and what she did in the film. And I can't really know how she found that because Lola is very young and she's 17 now, she was 16 when she was in the film, and I think she didn't get everything of the—I mean she understood it in a very instinctive way. But if you talk to her, she cannot explain or she can—she doesn't have an intellectual point of view at all on the character. But I think there is—in this way I can say—I really believe in some kind of a magic of cinema, because I think something—sometimes things really happen between the character and an actor that's all about an intuition of things. It's very moving when you watch your actors. I think it's very—it's extremely moving for a film maker when you see—when suddenly when you see your images in the rushes, the images that you shot on the—in the editing room. It's not some—you don't see yourself having asked them to do something, you just see them being the character. It's something that really like makes you cry almost. There is this shot at the end of the film, it's almost nothing, but to me it's something that could really make me cry, it's like at the very end when we are in the countryside again and she's looking for Lorenz, she can't find him in the house, and we go out of the house and there is this shot where she just walks on the—she's on the mountain, she just walks outside, there is the wind, and she just looks for him. And after she finds him, she is sitting on a rock and they talk together. But there is this shot where she just walks along and the way—there is such a mature and deep and simple way of just walking and looking. Something that she would never have done in the first part where her character was 15. And I just can't figure out how she could have such a strong intuition of how you are, the kind of look that you have, the thing that—I can really see what she has been—in her face I can see where she's been through, I can see the past, the wounds, I can see everything in her eyes. And it's not like something I asked her, like please do that, put that in your eyes. It's something that she did herself. And I think it's a mixture of what she is and the script, something that the script gives to her too and made it possible.
SCR: The publicist just gave me “the look.” So I guess maybe we can do one more question. Shall I do the crisis in French cinema question or the other question? I'll do the other one. If I read correctly, you're a mom now for the first time.
SCR: And did this have any effect on your conception of the—I know the idea of the film was well part of that, but I wonder if it had any effect on your conception of execution of the film or that you would care to speak about. If not, then we can talk about the crisis in French cinema.
HANSEN-LØVE: No, I would just say that I think when you have a child you're writing a very different way. Not meaning what you are or—it doesn't change my perception of right at all, at all. It's just part of me and it's just—but just you have much less time. So before I used to write when I was writing a script I used to write like I would give myself 10 hours, I would say, OK, today I will write from 8 o'clock until 8 in the night, and then—so I would write extremely slowly. And the big change in your life is that you have less time, so you have to be much more concentrated—it changes the way you write. And the other thing is that I think I would not have written this film if I had not become pregnant. I think that's the reason I wrote the film when I was pregnant and I think the fact of having a child made it possible for me to write this film.