Examined Life: Mia Hansen-Løve on Things to Come
There are only a few minutes of calm at the beginning of Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature Things to Come. In a prologue two years before the film’s narrative kicks off, philosophy professor Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is on seaside vacation with longtime partner Heinz (André Marcon) and children, a stroll reminiscent of the family outing that kicks off her sophomore film, 2009’s The Father of My Children. In both films, this stroll prefigures much strife to come: shortly after Things’ opening, Nathalie — already frayed by the demands of looking after her elderly mother (Edith Scob) — finds out Heinz is leaving her, after 25 years, for another woman. More trouble follows: at university, classes are disrupted by protests. When Nathalie goes out of town to visit her former student and semi-protégé Fabien (Roman Kolinka), she finds little peace at the commune he’s retreated to — instead, they argue about whether she’s ossified into a political reactionary while his colleagues, in a possible parody of the worst tendencies of liberal activists everywhere, have long disagreements about whether to publish under one collective name or whether that’s ideological grandstanding. Not even the movies are a source of relief: when she goes to see Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a creep tries to feel her up and follows her out of the theater.
Like all of Hansen-Løve’s features to date, Things to Come is rooted in the lives of her friends and relations — in this case, the separation of her philosophy professor parents. And, like her best work, it moves with a crisp assurance that leaves little room for unearned sentiment: life’s relentless pace is matched by Hansen-Løve’s David Fincher-fast editing and terse camera movements. The world is changing, and whether or not she likes it is irrelevant; Nathalie has to keep moving to stay afloat in her own life. By film’s end, she hasn’t found a new iteration of her day-to-day routine in which she can’t have a new version of all she’s lost — but she has the guts to semi-rudely toss her former spouse out and the company of the rest of her extant family for dinner, and that will have to be enough. The film is out Dec. 2 via Sundance Selects.
Eden was a bit of a spread out production because you shot in New York before going back to France. This new film seems like possibly a more compact shoot. Did you want to work faster? I never want to work fast. If I could, I think I would take twice more time than what I am given for shooting. I can be happy making my films with very little money, but the two things that are luxurious are time and shooting on film. This was much simpler to do than Eden, so I didn’t need as much time, but there were still a lot of locations, a lot of moving back, and that actually surprised me — that the film was more tough to do in terms of rhythm than what I thought. We had very little time, and we kept being on trains from one place to another. I’m sure it will sound huge to you, but we have shorter days in France. It’s eight hours a day, 36 days. But for Eden, it was definitely 55 or something like that.
Where did you find the commune location? Vercors, an extremely beautiful area that’s not touristic at all, maybe because there is not much to do there. Nobody was there. We were there in the middle of the summer, and it felt like we had the whole place for ourselves. For Goodbye First Love, I had been shooting in an area not too far from there, between Haute-Loire and Ardèche. My grandmother has a house there; I spent all of my holidays as a kid there, and I’m very attached to this place. I didn’t want to shoot there again, so I was looking for a place that was pretty similar, but not the same. I don’t want to shoot at the same place again and again. Also, it made sense because Vercors was a very important place during the Resistance, during the Second World War. Young leftist people enjoy going to places that have such a background, so that was also right, that they would go there.
There’s a long tradition of films that deal with May ’68 student radicalism and its legacy, but they’re normally aligned with or from the perspective of the students. It’s a little bit unusual to have it from the perspective of a professor. That’s something I was aware of. When you have films in France, which at some point deal with leftism and ideas connected to May ’68, most of the time they show characters who are on the same level as these ideas. I grew up in the world of philosophy teachers, and being there, I saw all the palettes, all the different nuances of leftism. My parents were leftist people, but with different ideas sometimes. And I saw that around them, in the relationship they had to the students.
Do you want to talk about assembling the enormous range of philosophical references? I wrote down a lot of names, but it’s kind of silly to ask you about them one by one. I was never telling myself, “I should add Rousseau.” The world I grew up in, a world of philosophy teachers, was like this in everyday life. Every day, my parents would discuss both the food we were about to eat and the last lesson they had given on Nietszche. My father has been both a philosophy teacher and a translator of German philosophy. My mother was an editor and a philosophy teacher. They had big discussions about abstract ideas, and also very concrete ones. So, all these references showed up in a very spontaneous way. I could have been afraid and thought, “I should have less because people will think I want to show something or that I have something to prove.”
I also wanted to ask about the debate they have at the commune about whether they should be published under one group name or if that’s actually not ideologically helpful. Were you thinking about The Invisible Committee [an anonymous collective of radical French intellectuals]? Of course I thought about them. But actually, it has been influenced even more by a student of my mother, a young man who my mother liked so much when he was in high school. She helped him going through some very prestigious exams in order to get to École normale supérieure, which is a big school. I knew him, actually, because he was the best friend of my boyfriend at the time. So we both had a kind of strong relationship to that boy, and he impressed me a lot. He was very smart, very witty. At some point, he left the school and teaching and everything to go to the country and involve himself in more radical ideas. We lost touch with him. And I think my mother, at some point, regretted this relationship that she has with this young boy, but it also made sense that he had gone to his own way, you know?
When you’re writing a screenplay, are you more concerned with story construction and dialogue or do you start to write in camera movement within your screenplay? Or do you wait to do that until you get to the location? I never think of camera movements when I write a screenplay. That comes really very late, only when I start preparing the film. For me, there are really two moments. One is about the general movement of the film, and there is no dialogue involved in that. While there can be a little, it’s really more about the arc of the film. And it can take a lot of time. I build ideas of scenes, but more than that, ideas of locations. I construct the time that the character goes through and the different locations he goes through. When I have that, I’m very self-confident with the film. But as long as I don’t have that, I can’t even start writing the first scene. When I have that, I write scene one and then scene two. I would never write scene 45 without having 44, because it really feels for me that one scene comes from the scene before, and that I’m looking for fluidity. I had this conversation with a filmmaker the other day who was surprised. She was asking me about how I write. She said, “Do you use Post-its?” I didn’t even understand what she was talking about.
The dominant POV is Isabelle’s character, but you have moments where you split away for a second — you follow Fabien after they argue, and he tells his girlfriend, “I feel bad about our interaction,” or when her son wanders off in the nursing home they’re looking at for her mother and has a look around. How do you branch out? I think there are very few such moments, maybe three or four in the whole film. I almost never leave her, but there are a few moments, where I take a very, very short walk on the side. For me, the moment that is crucial is at the end of the film. She goes back to the country to see Fabien, and they have this weird night together. Nothing happens, but there is something in the air. He brings her back to the train, and then there are these long shots on him with the music. It’s about her life and her difficulties, but it’s also about transmission. When I let her go with the train and stay with Fabien, that, for me, has a really special meaning, even more from the fact that I’m doing my next film with him as a main character. I enjoy connecting my films to each other.
The beginning of this film echoes the beginning of The Father of My Children. I don’t know if you were thinking about that. I wasn’t so aware of that when I wrote it, but afterwards I realized that there is something in the two characters [Nathalie and Father’s protagonist, a producer modeled on the late Humbert Balsan] that they really have in common, the fact that they have this energy and passion for their job and this way of always moving on. At some point, it looks like they’re actually transforming their despair into something, into movement, in order to save their life — even though it doesn’t work for him and it works for her — but there is this same kind of melancholy at some point. It’s not melancholy for Isabelle; it’s action and love for her job and she’s full of energy as a character. But there is pain involved, and there is something active about that. That’s one thing they have in common, but actually I could link between all of my films in different ways. They are all meant to be portraits. To me, it ends up being like a gallery portrait.
Are those links just because you’re drawing upon your family and personal history? Or are there other links that you’re seeing? I think other links. I’m really trying to create some kind of dialogue between my films — not saying that I think people should see all of them to understand them or that they cannot exist on their own. But when I write, one of the excitements is not only writing something new that exists in itself, but also something that’s part of a world that I’m trying to create. As if all of my films were little stones, building up an imaginary house in which I can feel comfortable. Not that the films are comfortable, but they reflect the way I see or experience.
One of my favorite things about your movies is the way that you have these very economical, sometimes terse, camera movements. One I was thinking about, because it’s so logical, is when you see her in the classroom. She walks all the way around the desks, and then she goes to the window and you dolly up to her. So you get all of the students, all of the space and then you end up with her. Is that something that you figure out when you get to the location? When I prepare a film, there are two steps for me. I spend so much time working on how I’m going to shoot it, even before I have the locations. Then, I re-do it all over again when I have the locations. Maybe I won’t be doing this all of my life, but for the moment, I really enjoy doing this. It’s not a storyboard, but I draw sketches. The classroom is always a classroom, so you can do it. But in many cases, I don’t have the locations, so I do it very theoretically. I imagine the window will be here, the door here, and it ends up never being like that, so I have to do it all over again. But it’s very useful because when I do it all over again, I still know what is important and what is not, what can be changed, and what I really want. For instance, in this scene that you’re mentioning, it’s not in the script that she has to walk, talks to the students and then at the end, she talks to the window. And it’s very important in the scene. It tells us something about her and her mood, the fact that at first she mingles and then she goes to the side and talks to herself. She’s here and not here at the same time. These kind of little things finally give meaning to the scene or defines the scene I find.
Let me ask you about the Certified Copy scene. She is a philosophy professor, so it does make sense as a film she’d watch, but why that film specifically? And why can’t she get through a screening without some guy trying to feel her up? Where does that scene come from? I simply thought it was exactly the kind of film that Nathalie would go to — what this kind of character, an intellectual figure alone in the summer, would go to. And that was a film that was released the year when the film is happening. I also enjoyed the fact that she’s watching Juliette Binoche. I found it fun somehow. The guy, the thing that happens there happened to my mother. I know it’s not a good reason to justify it, but I’m not justifying myself, I’m just telling you why this ended up getting in the film. Everything bad was happening, and then she goes to a screening to see cinema, to relax, and that happened, and you’re like, how can it be possible? Also, I remembered from my mother the fact that she didn’t react violently as other women could have done. I was asking her, “Did you scream?” And she wasn’t afraid, and I think because she didn’t care at that point. She had so many problems that she wasn’t scared or shocked. She just wanted him to let her go, you know?
Normally in this kind of film, when there’s a separation at a certain point it is implied that there’s some kind of tentative reconciliation between the two people involved. But Nathalie is clearly angry at him at the end of the film. Sometimes I feel guilty about that because I realize it really looks like revenge at the end. He comes up and obviously wants to be invited for dinner, and she kicks him out. She has no pity for him. But I enjoyed it so much. Also, it felt true to me, and I tried to be faithful to my memories of what I observe from life, from my parents for breaking up. And after all he left her. He has another woman. Why should she have pity on him? She doesn’t have to. But I was struck by the fact that some men were shocked by this scene and said, “It’s so mean that she doesn’t invite him.” And to me, it just felt right that she wouldn’t. She would never. But I actually enjoyed a lot filming her in that way, the irony of the scene and the way she’s very polite but actually very cold when she brings him back to the door and the few seconds where she keeps holding the door knob, and then goes back to the kitchen. There was a feeling of satisfaction that was great. Also, it was great to see how Isabelle enjoyed playing that. She’s obviously 100 percent herself when she’s doing this kind of thing.
Edith Scob, as Nathalie’s mother, obviously has a lot of screen history associated with her. That was as obvious as with Isabelle, actually. I thought of her since the very start. I loved her presence in the Franju films, and I thought she has such a unique modernity. She reminded me so much of my grandmother, who was a model, and she has this weird thing. She’s not a conventional actor. She’s really somewhere else. She’s not aware where the camera is. It’s the opposite of Isabelle, who is so much into control. She knows exactly where the camera is, where the frame is, how the light is. [Edith] has no idea. She’s totally juvenile in her way of acting. And I saw her in Summer Hours, and I loved what she did in the film and her presence and her realness. There is an innocence about her. I found it extremely beautiful, but in a very strange way.