Going Between Melancholy & Euphoria With Director Mia Hansen-Løve

“For me, for some reason, when I write a film it’s all the moments that nobody cares about that are essential to me,” says Mia Hansen-Løve, whose deeply personal and emotionally devastating films have made her one of the most fascinating and unique voices in cinema. Epic in scale and possessed by an ineffable beauty, Hansen-Løve’s delicate and intelligent films are as gracefully crafted as they are saturated with potent feeling, always leaving you with a visceral impression that lingers long after the credits have rolled. And with four features to her name, the 33-year-old French filmmaker has so clearly established her voice and her specific cinematic touch in a way that can take others lifetimes to discover—from her quietly haunting familial dramas All Is Forgiven and Father of My Children, to her incredible meditation on heartbreak Goodbye First Love, and now her latest stunning portrait of a generation with Eden.

Based on the experiences of Hansen-Løve’s brother (and co-writer) Sven, Eden tells the story of Paul (played wonderfully by Felix de Givry), one of the pioneering DJs of the early 1990s French rave scene. Along with his friends, such as Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter aka Daft Punk, we follow Paul through the swirling rise of France’s club scene and the French touch garage music that fueled it. Juxtaposing blinding blissful club scenes (soundtracked by Sven and Mia’s perfect curation) with the quiet, mundane moments that make up a person’s life, we watch as Paul becomes swept away by his dreams, leaving him struggling to come to terms with what happens when the lights begin to brighten and everyone else has left the club.

So last week, before the premiere of Eden at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Mia Hansen-Løve to explore the mix of pleasure and pain in her films, the personal nature of storytelling, and how a Daft Punk song made her realize everything Eden was trying to say.

Early on in the film, Paul describes Frankie Knuckles’ “The Whistle Song” as “between melancholy and euphoria.” When he said this, it hit me that, not only is this why I feel such an emotional connection to this kind of music, but that it also perfectly summarizes the feeling your films elicit. There’s always a palpable sadness and melancholy, but one that fills you with such pleasure and makes you feel alive.

When I wrote this scene, I didn’t realize I was talking about my own feelings and my own relationship to film and style in a way. Afterwards when I was editing the film, I realized how close I was to this definition, and I realized that while I was letting the characters say this, I was actually saying that to myself about why I connected to this music also. This music is very different from me in many ways—house music from Chicago, what do I have to do with that? It’s so different from me, my culture, my world. Yes, I spent hours and hours in these parties, but how come I have such a strong relationship to that music? I realized that with this scene and how they were explaining what they liked about the music, it was also why I connected with it. It’s also why I connect so much with Daft Punk. They have nothing to do with the garage music and it’s not the same feeling, but still the one thing they have in common is the mixture of warm and cold, of euphoria and melancholy,  of energy and sadness. That’s the one thing that blows me away about some of the songs of Daft Punk. 

But to go back to my own style or relationship to that, it’s hard to say how to define it, just as you don’t decide to be how you are. Afterwards, when you think about it and you’re asked about it, you learn how to put it into words and how to analyze it. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but I can’t help doing it the way I do. It just reflects who I am and if films are like that it’s because I make very personal films and they’re just like me. I constantly go back and forth from feeling very strong, very full of energy and joy and confident with life to then having moments of total melancholy, which is a thing I have to carry with me all the time. That’s really what defines me, and I have no other way than getting it in my films too. But it’s not really like a choice, it’s my experience of life.

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Your films also feel so uniquely personal because the characters are always tethered to and led by their emotions. Actions are guided by feeling, and you’re not afraid to expose the vulnerability that comes with that.

I have a certain confidence in myself when I write that allows me to have characters who move from one feeling to another, who move from different kinds of moments without it always being rational or systematic. There’s something very impressionist about it, just like in life. In life it’s not mechanical, it’s not like something bad happens and suddenly you’re sad or then something great happens and then you are happy; sometimes people are just sad or happy in moments when they should be sad. And that’s how I feel about life, and I’m lucky that I don’t forbid myself to do that. It’s something that sometimes makes my scripts hard to get financed because it’s written this way and what I’m saying is not clear enough. I always get reproaches about that and I have to fight to defend that. But even if everybody was to tell me it’s bad and I should do it another way, I’d still keep doing it because it’s the film I want to do, it’s who I am, and I have the right to just be faithful to how I live. 

But I do notice that there is a tendency and ideology in writing today about scripts where the characters knows what they want to do and then goes in this direction. There is this idea that the character should be defined by the things that they want to be or to do, and then the film about all be the way from A to B. I know audiences enjoy that, and I guess I enjoy that too in many films. It’s very reassuring when you see a film and the problem of this character is that he doesn’t have something to eat and he needs to get money so that he can get something to eat, and the film is about how he can get this money, even if he has to commit murder. You know what I mean, this is classical storytelling that makes you feel a lot of empathy because it’s clear, it’s obvious, and you can connect with that. So I don’t have anything ideological against it, but I’m saying it’s good that you have those kind of stories that are so simplistic—and I say simplistic because in real life we are not determined by one or two objectives we have and just stick to that like robots—because it has a universality, but I do think both can exist. I think you can try to tell stories in other ways and try to show the life of people in a rhythm that’s not the same, or choose to tell their stories and show moments that usually people don’t choose because they think they’re not enough dramatic or essential. But for me, for some reason, when I write a film it’s all the moments that nobody cares about that are essential to me.

Those moments, however small, take place over such a vast amount of time that they add up to what makes a person’s life and the moments you’d recall in memory years later. They’re important because, as you said, we’re not just watching someone go from point A to point B, they’re often simply just drifting by on the way to themselves.

Yes, and also my films are about time passing. So for me it’s not like it’s only about small moments in a week of somebody’s life where nothing was happens. Actually, I consider my own films as pretty Romanesque, a lot of things happen—it’s been 20 years, you see people dying, you see people loving each other, separating. My films are full of events, except I don’t show them when they’re happening, I show in the middle, or the before. It seems to me I’m not as interested in the actual moment when the dramatic thing happens, because for me this brings me back to the conventions. I know people enjoy conventions and I do too as a spectator, but as a filmmaker I’m always more excited to try to film things that I feel were not filmed yet, that belong to me in a way.

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Showing the aftermath or how someone deals with something that’s happened is where the beauty lies in when creating a portrait of a life.

That’s why I wasn’t interested in showing Cyril committing suicide. Even more than that, I would have felt ill at ease showing it. I have a strong relationship with moral issues, and it’s hard to explain why this or that I feel should not be there, but I never like the to dramatize violent events in a way to push emotions of the viewer. It’s not that I’m not interested in emotions, emotions are the one thing that interests me, but I would like to find it in another way and connects it to a truth, rather than doing it in a mechanical way. There is nothing easier than making people cry or feel strong emotions, you just have to push certain buttons. But if you choose not to push them and try to find them in another way, maybe some people will not connect to that or be moved, but the ones who will, will be moved in a deeper way.

I was very moved by the use of “Veridis Quo” in the dinner scene after Cyril’s death because I’ve always felt a strong connection to that song and was waiting to see it used in a film.

I think that song is an amazing score. I was so lucky that no one had used it before. For me, rediscovering this song and being able to use it in this scene was miraculous.

When you first began working on the film, how did you collaborate with Sven to start digging back through all these years of memories?

I have my own memories because I spent a lot of time at these parties and I spent years going to the Cheers parties every week. I’ve always been very close to my brother and know his life quite well, but there were the first years, the ones I was not there for because I was too young, when he really started going out. So I took notes on my own, trying to construct the architecture of the film, and at the same time I started interviewing Sven about the these early years. I just took a notebook and it was like an interview. I had my own feelings about it but it was foggy, and for Sven it was foggy too because it was a long time ago and he was taking a lot of ecstasy, so a lot of it is gone. Sometimes there were things I remembered better than he did.

So it was like traveling on a common journey to the past, and I and we enjoyed these discussions. We spent a lot of time recalling the past and talking about friends, some who were dead or disappeared or some of them became so successful. The more time I spent talking with him about it, the more I realized how new this territory was for me and how exciting it was to actually make a film that, again, was a film inspired by someone I knew and started from a very intimate experience, but was also a film that allowed me to make a portrait of a whole generation of a group of friends, which was something that was totally new for me. It was a real challenge.

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Both Goodbye First Love and Eden beautifully illustrate the pain of letting go and just how long that takes. Whereas Goodbye First Love deals with grieving for lost love, Eden shows the grieving for a lost dream and learning to cope with that reality. You said you wanted this film to be a bit of a departure from your previous three, but do you find you keep inescapably returning to the themes that haunt you?

Totally true. It has to do with the fact that both films are portraits—one is a portrait of myself and one is a portrait of my brother. We are very different, but maybe that’s the one thing we have in common. It’s funny though because when I started to write Eden, I really had the feeling of taking some distance from my previous films in many ways because it felt like the film was opening me to different territory, which was because of the atmosphere, the club life and all the things I’d never filmed before.

But at the same time, once the film was over, I realized how much it connected to my previous films, and really all of them. It’s terrible because you want to get rid of yourself but you realize you always have the same themes and obsessions. I can see some of Eden in Goodbye First Love, of course because of precisely what you said, but also the suicide in Father of My Children and the mix of energy and melancholy is definitely something that’s defining in that. Earlier I was talking about All is Forgiven and realized how much of that there is in Eden, maybe even more the others this films. That was also a portrait of a man and about solitude. 

Your characters are always on very insular journeys, which leads me to think solitude is something of great importance to you and your work. 

I have a very complicated relationship to solitude, and I think the way I work actually reflects that because I write my own script. Solitude means a lot to me and it’s very important for me; I love it, I need it, it’s kind of an obsession. Like when I’m promoting a film I truly suffer being not being on my own and not having time to write. But at the same time, I hate solitude, it’s my demon. I’ve always been scared of solitude, so I’ve always lived with somebody. I was never living on my own except for the one time I did and I was extremely unhappy. So I guess this thing with solitude, this complex or ambiguous relationship to solitude, finds its way in my films too. I enjoy so much filming people walking alone, that’s something that comes back in my films. It’s a kind of obsession and a sum up of this theme of solitude.

But there are varying degrees of solitude. There’s solitude that’s a choice, a decision to be by oneself, and then there’s the solitude that feels more like a lack—when your missing someone or feeling a certain void and “alone” becomes “without.”

What you just said is exactly is what I was meaning to say. For me, when I was saying I miss solitude now it’s because it’s not solitude. When I write a film and work on a film, I never feel solitude as being solitude. So yes, I really have the same feeling about this duality, that there are two kinds of solitude. For me the solitude that I get as a filmmaker is never the painful solitude, it’s always the happy solitude, which was not the case before I was a filmmaker, which was why I enjoy being a filmmaker so much.

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Watching All Is Forgiven recently, when she walks off into the woods at the end, it felt as though she could have been walking right into the world of Goodbye First Love.

In All is Forgiven, before that scene, when her father dies, you have this long shot of him where he’s on his own taking a coffee and goes to sit on the read to read her letter again. I just realized while I was talking about it earlier that there is a such a strong connection to this specific shot in Eden when he reads the poem—except in Eden he doesn’t die. Actually, and fortunately for me, it’s really a new life that starts. There is melancholy but there is something new coming up. It’s not about dying, but still there is such a  strong connection for me in this very last shot of Paul.

Paul isn’t dying but it’s certainly the end of something. And speaking more to the music in the film, how did you Sven curate exactly what would be there for each scene and did the script specify which songs would play with each scene?

We did that at the same time as we wrote, and that’s one of the things that made the process of the writing of this film so joyful and particular. Usually when I write I’m totally alone, but I do listen to songs that stay in my mind and do connect to the film, each film. But in this case, music was the center of the film. I write chronologically, so we were looking for music parallel to this process. It was very interesting because the choice of the songs often had an influence and an impact on scenes themselves. We were so precise about the choices of the songs—why / how is it going to effect the scene, who is going to use it and mix it. It totally affected the music, the rhythm, the atmosphere and spirit of the scenes themselves.

When the script was done we already knew by heart which songs would play in which scenes, and that allowed us to look for the rights quite early. But something strange happened, and the same thing happened for Goodbye First Love. There’s this song, “Within” from the Daft Punk album — but when we wrote the script the album wasn’t released yet. So we had “One More Time” and “Da Funk,” but we didn’t have “Within.” At the end we had chosen another for this scene, and then album came out and there is this song and it was overwhelming.

eden-interviewWell that whole song is about searching for something and not knowing where to find it.

It’s so weird to feel that these guys made a song about my brother. Of course they didn’t, maybe it’s about themselves, but for me it tells more about my brother than about them, maybe because it’s universal. Anytime they make a very sad song they just kill me and they’re so good at melancholic songs. But this song, the music, the lyrics, and the rhythm just drove me crazy. From that moment I identified the film with that song. There was some kind of fusion between both, as there is with the poem by Robert Creeley. I felt this total empathy, like they managed to say with words or with music what I wasn’t able to say with words, but they were saying the same thing in a different way.

I had the exact same feeling with the song “The Water” by Johnny Flynn that I used in Goodbye First Love, and it’s also a song I didn’t know before I was writing and I discovered late. I actually discovered while I was editing and it was the same thing, it felt like it was written for the film. It’s so exactly how I feel about it, but would never have been able to say with these words. I couldn’t help listening to it again and again, and I had the same thing with “Within.” Actually the shot I did at the end, when the song is being played at the club, for me this is the shot where everything comes together—his love for their music, his admiration for them, his sadness. It’s as if their music makes Paul connect with his own past. This song, when I discovered it, it revealed to me what was the actual meaning of this moment, and it was the moment when everything comes together. 

I love when a song in a film hits me and I listen to it for days after just carrying around the weight and emotion of the film with me—and that certainly happened with “The River” and a lot of the songs in Eden.

I’ve been addicted to the songs of my film for a year and it’s driving me crazy, I can’t get out. I feel like I’m Paul! I’m a prisoner of this music now. I made a film about that, and in making it I became the victim of my own film. I really have trouble to get out of that and think only another film can ultimately can save me from this addiction. 

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The big party scenes in the film were interesting because rather than feeling as though you were there enjoying the party, you felt on the outside of it all, like Paul would. How did you want to approach shooting those moments?

I spent so much time discussing with Sven how we wanted it to be, and how to find the balance we wanted. We tried to find the balance between certain realism, that was not realism for itself, but realism that brings access to some kind of poetry. And at the same time, we didn’t want to lose the emotions of the song. If you play it too realistic, with the really noisy, dirty, heavy beat, then you can’t hear the music anymore. So you have to make it more pure, but if you make it totally pure, you lose the feeling of reality, the authenticity, the incarnation of that. There was also a lot of discussion in how we would treat the texture of the song.

But we really wanted to depict clubs in a way that had not been depicted before. We felt that we wanted to have an authenticity, but at the same time, have emotion—but emotion that wasn’t the same kind of emotion you usually have when you see clubs in film and people just stick to the music and imitate the music. I wanted to create our own grammar, my own rhythm and the whole point was to define it and find where I am in this party. I stick to Paul, but I’m not with him all the time, I have my own perception of it. I am like his companion, I’m with him but I’m not him. It was really about having my own point of view that would be something between empathy and enjoying it and living it and being in the middle of it, and the certain distance, the distance of somebody that’s not necessarily taking ecstasy and not hysterical. It’s both, and that’s the place that is my place. I kept on trying to define this.

Do you find that you think differently as a writer when you’re writing from a male and female perspective?

The difference is probably that I identify with the women. Every time it’s a female character, I feel it’s me. Not necessarily me, but there’s an identification that’s more organic or direct, whereas with male characters, I’m in love with them. So it’s different, I’m not in love with myself. When I film a girl, I’m not in love with her, I’m just identifying myself with her. The men I choose to film I’m always seduced by them, there’s something about them that moves me and attracts me deeply. Seduction is part of it or else I couldn’t spend so much time filming them. So that’s the main difference that I would say, and it’s almost an erotic relationship I have with them, it’s not the same at all. But it’s not different in terms of writing and feeling at ease with them, it’s not something I think about as if I wasn’t on the same mode of writing.

Are you working on something new now?

I wrote a script a year ago that I’m trying to get financing for so I can shoot it next summer. It’s a film with Isabelle Huppert and it’s a portrait of a woman of her age who is a philosophy teacher.

Considering your parents were philosophy professors, will this one be very personal as well?

Yeah, I’m afraid so. Truly, when I wrote this script and the last one, I was like okay, this is the last. But I never really choose what I’m writing about. I felt that I had to finish something about portraying people in my life in a way, so that I can move onto some other place.

Having written this with your brother, has it change your relationship?

We were already close and I didn’t know we could become even closer. We’ve become extremely close now, and it’s changed our relationship forever I guess. We were friends, we were seeing each other a lot, but for three years now we haven’t spent a day without at least talking on the phone. I think the film changed both my life and his life in many ways. When you’re brother and sister you often have a strong bond, but making this film together, for both of us there really is a before and after.

Did collaborating with Sven open you up to the possibility of working this way again?

I always thought it was the only time I would write with somebody and it would be very special and it had to do with the fact that it was a portrait of him. I still need to write my own script and can’t get away from that, so I would not make a film that I hadn’t written, but Eden has changed me and influenced me. I feel more free and more open. I feel now I can write my own script, and maybe why not let somebody write some parts of my films or involve somebody in the writing. For instance I would love to make a film with Greta Gerwig. If I do it at some point, I think I would ask her to be involved in the writing. But every time it should be something special and have specific reasons.

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