Mia Hansen-Løve Finds Power in Resignation
The French writer/director discusses her collaboration with Isabelle Huppert in her fifth film, Things to Come
When a character experiences loss in a film, we assume that they’re just a turning point away from changing their life for the better. Rarely do the movies meditate on the long and necessary period between accepting the close of one chapter in your life in preparing for the next. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s quietly devastating Things to Come, now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Nathalie, a middle-aged philosophy professor played by Isabelle Huppert, sees — in successive order — her husband leave her for another woman, her children move out, her critical authority as a philosopher challenged, and her mother’s health deteriorate. For the first time in her life, she’s been left behind (unless you count her ungrateful cat — just one of two star turns for Huppert and a feline this year; see: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.)
As Durga Chew-Bose wrote in an editorial piece published on The Review when the film played at TIFF 16 in September: “There is no actress better suited for capturing the tedium and everyday nuisance of endings. Together with Hansen-Løve, Huppert perfectly captures this fact of life with insight and compassion, delicately conjuring images of loneliness and its many, unexpected forms.”
We spoke to Hansen-Løve while she was in Toronto for the Festival about summertime sadness, working with Huppert to find the character’s tenderness, and the director’s own specific vision of acting. What followed was a conversation about grief and acceptance that was as thoughtful and meditative as the film itself.
Things to Come feels like a film about endings. What inspired you to write a story about an older woman who is at this pivotal moment in her life?
I think what inspired me is the observation of life, just as in my previous film. I had seen my mother and other women going through difficulties; what was striking was the fact that they all happened at the same time. In a few years, I saw women lose their parents, their children moved away, they broke up with their husbands. Often, I would see men leave the woman at a certain age to be with younger women.
Even though I'm not a feminist in the ideological meaning of that term, I became very obsessed with the difficulty of being a woman of a certain age. I think that issue actually scared me. That's why this hasn't been my first film, or my second, only the fifth, because it was the first time that I felt that I was strong or mature enough to face that issue.
It’s an interesting parallel to your last film, Eden, which was about the Parisian DJ scene and young people trying to make their way through their twenties.
The film will always been connected to Eden because I wrote Things to Come while I was looking for the money for [Eden]. That was a film about youth, about partying, about young people for whom life seems so open. I was so happy to make it — it gave me the courage to face the other side of life. The side where things, just as you said, seem to end.
It was really about making a portrait of a woman. I wasn't sure, while I was writing it, where that woman would be going or how it would end. I just wanted to be faithful to reality as I observe it. What I enjoyed about the making of the film was discovering that there was actually more light in that story than I thought there would be. In the end, I had found some openness, thanks to the fact that the character ultimately finds a way to enjoy her loneliness. And to see it not only as loneliness, but as freedom.
You can see that, even in the way Nathalie’s objects strewn about the room. When you're staging a story about a woman whose husband leaves her and whose family is moving on, how do you make her space a replication of that state of mind?
Well, space has always been extremely important in my films. Usually when I write, I start with very simple, basic emotions, but I also think of places. Thinking of the atmosphere of places and what they tell about life, about a character really helps me build up the story. This film is a depiction of a world, in this case, a world of philosophy teacher. Places were also important in how they had to express a certain way of life, a certain spirit.
I thought about how to choose, not only the furniture, but sometimes, the single books. I was very worried about how the light comes in and out, because while the film’s [content] was dark, I wanted it to be set in summer. It was not only about what I put into the places and what they looked like, but also how they interfered with the summer.
It's funny because we just had an Eric Rohmer retrospective at TIFF...
Rohmer is a very important filmmaker to me. I'm not the kind of filmmaker who likes references when I'm writing, I don’t try to make my films look like this or that director. But if there was one film that I couldn't help thinking of while I was writing Things to Come, it was Le Rayon vert. It’s also this portrait of a woman who has to go through a summer, who tries to find a place to go, and who is kind of lost. There’s a contrast between this atmosphere of vacation and the openness and the pain that she's going through. It’s a film that always moves me a lot, the one film I felt connected to when I was writing Things to Come.
You don't see many movies about that experience of loneliness, especially in the summer. It’s a very melancholy feeling.
There are a lot of films about loneliness, but most of the time they are more society-oriented. This is a film that is really existential; what's going on has to do with invisible things. Ultimately, the film is really about her personal change.
It's almost like a hardening, at some points. Nathalie withdraws and she accepts it; she doesn't fight against it.
You can find this paradoxical, or strange, or disturbing, but I see some freedom in resignation. In this case, it’s about letting go in order to accept a certain void and fill the void with yourself, not depending on material things or even other people.
There is a film that has been very important to me about the same idea, even if it's in a different way. It's a film called The Wind by Victor Sjöström and it's about a woman fighting against a sandstorm. I saw it long ago, so maybe my memory's bad, but the film is about this woman who's alone in this house in the middle of the desert and she has to fight against the wind. The wind brings up so much sand, it becomes more and more scary, almost like a horror film, you know? At some point, at the very end… all I remember is this image of her opening the door and giving her body to the wind. It’s a metaphor about life that I can connect with.
I feel like I've had a breakup like that. Where you feel at one point, you're almost going to blow away, but if you open yourself up to the experience...
There's also this idea that once you've lost everything, you win something. It's not an easy idea, she goes through difficult moments. She's not happy at the end, it's still ambivalent and there's pain and grief involved because life is about that too. She learns that while she's losing everything, one thing after another, as if each branch of a tree was breaking, she finds something else. I don't know if it's better, but she finds something interesting.
You've worked with emerging actors before. What was your collaboration with Isabelle Huppert like?
It was very new for me as a way of working. I had done four films before, either with non-professional actors or not very well-known actors. Isabelle Huppert has been doing this for many years and she has so much great experience. But once she decides to play in a film, it's not like she comes on to the set with all of her background. She's really into the present. There is a huge trust — it's a decision that she makes and then she trusts you completely. She becomes almost like a child at the end. What I mean is that there is an innocence that she has and an openness that was also very interesting because it fit the part. We’re used to seeing her in colder, borderline hard parts. In reality, Isabelle has an openness, a tenderness, and she has a huge trust. That helped me a lot because that made it possible to not be too intimidated or terrified by her presence. I just tried to be extremely focused on what the film was about, that’s what she wants from you. So we could totally connect.
Was it a challenge for you to separate her as a performer from her persona?
Contrary to her image, where she looks so intellectual and cerebral, she's actually a very instinctive actor. Isabelle understands a script in its finest nuances. She's extremely smart, obviously, but she's not the kind of actress who needs a long conversation for you to explain intellectually and psychologically, the background of the character. She's not into that at all. She would find it extremely conventional, unlike what her vision of acting is about. I am exactly the same, so from our very first meeting, we felt like we could get along. We just agreed on one basic idea, which is the idea of tenderness. We didn't want the character to be bitter, or brutal, or mean, or sarcastic. Everybody can be. I mean, it's life. But the general idea was that we had to preserve some innocence to her character. We didn’t want the character to lock herself up because of what happens to her. Both of us thought that it was a very exciting challenge, artistically for the film, to show a woman who would find a way to preserve her joy, her love for life, even though a difficult thing happens. I think that was a key thing for our collaboration.
You mentioned that you both shared a vision of acting. What is your vision of acting?
The truth of acting really comes from the rhythm of the scenes, from the actions. I don't believe that it comes from conversation that we will have and the things that we will put in our mind. Of course, there can be a few crucial things that we exchange and say about the character. Like, as I was telling you, this thing about tenderness and openness that we wanted to create. But it's still an idea, it's very abstract.
The truth of a scene and a character ultimately happens while we work on the set. We have to find the proper music of the scene, the right silences, the right speeds at some moments. And find the right balance between the actions and the dialogue. It’s really about the way we connect what has been written with the reality of the scene and find a way to embody it. Really, acting is totally connected with mise-en-scène. It's not like, “there is Isabelle acting and then me doing nice shots on her acting.” It's the way both will be one single thing to build up some kind of a truth — the truth of the scene, the truth of the film.
It makes me think of the way you film the rhythms of everyday life. You know, how you clear the dishes.
I'm trying to find the actions that are right for the scene. All the work with Isabelle was like that. For instance, I would tell her: "Well now you stand up, you say that, you take this book and then you turn your back and then you go to the kitchen and then you come back with the dish and then you say that." Maybe she would say, “Well, I don't think that's right, I think she should first say the line, then go to the kitchen and then say the line from the kitchen." These are small things that sound very banal, but I think the whole thing is about that, actually. It has to be the right action at the right time, and it's nothing else. It's nothing else to me.