Can Philosophy Save Your Life? An Interview with Mia Hansen-Løve

The French filmmaker talks about her new film "Things to Come," starring Isabelle Huppert.
Amir Ganjavie

Things to Come

One of the greatest anxieties that any couple can have is the possibility of one day separating from each other. With each “I love you” comes an expectation that this love will be forever. It is easy for couples to imagine others separating but is much more difficult to imagine this happening to themselves. Separation is all the harder to imagine—and is especially difficult to handle—once has reached a certain age and has built a life with their spouse. One builds this life according to certain habits and creates an imaginary wall around relationships, but with the wall destroyed one might feel profoundly lost. Mia Hansen-Løve’s film Things to Come deals closely with the struggles of separation for a middle-aged woman. For Hansen-Løve, it seems that one can deal with and potentially overcome the pain of separation if they know the issue and propose a proper method for dealing with it. This is specially the case of Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie,, a philosophy professor who is supposed to know how to handle the inner frustration in life. In the hands of the French director, separation is not a dark period for this woman. Even though she may find it difficult at the beginning, there will be new adventures to come; certainly, she is equipped to find her way and proclaim her freedom. One might argue that the separation is a blessing in disguise which enables Nathalie to touch transcendence in real life.

NOTEBOOK: We could divide Things to Come into two parts:what happens before Nathalie’s knowledge of her husband’s infidelity and what happens after it. Before this revelation, she was in a calm situation and her life was tranquil, but this changed after the separation when she then has more issues to deal with. However, at the same time she seems capable of dealing with her life. I could argue that the separation is a blessing in disguise . Do you see Nathalie’s philosophical thinking as a way to more wisely approach anxiety, freedom, and inner doubts?

MIA HANSEN-LØVE: I don’t think that philosophy enables us to find all of the answers to our daily problems. However, I do think that someone who has a philosophical approach to things is used to asking himself or herself questions. So, of course, when Nathalie’s husband leaves her, she falters, she is surprised, she is not prepared. Philosophy does not give her the immediate tools and arms required for defending herself but she may, nonetheless, be better armed than someone else when it comes to accepting anxiety and doubt. Finally, I believe that philosophy is not wisdom but rather the search for wisdom. The two are not the same thing. A philosopher is not a wise person. A philosopher is someone who is searching to find wisdom but who may not necessarily find it. For me, philosophy is more like anxiety and doubt, which is what Nathalie has that someone else may not have. She accepts living with doubt, with anxiety, and with suffering. It doesn’t mean that she suffers less but it means maybe that she knows more than another that suffering and liberty are not where we expect them to be. There is a relationship between philosophy and liberty that is very strong. One way of understanding that we can find liberty and therefore an internal happiness without depending on philosophical questions… What was difficult for me to say and what was a little bit of a challenge in the film was showing this woman going through all of these changes and that even with her husband leaving, the distance that is growing between her and her kids, losing her job, knowing that young people do not understand her and that she does not understand some of her students—despite all of this, she finds an inner peace in herself, an inner happiness. This happiness does not depend on anything other than a mysterious internal force. That is what the film pays tribute to. Maybe this is a tribute to philosophy. It does not mean that someone who is not a philosopher or professor of philosophy cannot find this but this is what defines this character.

NOTEBOOK: Given what you just said and considering the fact that your mother was a philosophy teacher, what do you think of the relationship between cinema and philosophy?

HANSEN-LØVE: Okay, I am not at all a legitimate philosopher. I studied a little bit of philosophy in university because I was in a German language program with a minor in philosophy. I grew up in this world. Nonetheless, I do not feel like I have a legitimate right to talk about philosophy in the sense that I do not have real knowledge or mastery of philosophy, you know? I simply have the intuition because I grew up in this world. I have the intuition of what this world involves. I grew up in a world where from a very young age, I was repeatedly told that philosophy was love and wisdom, and that the important thing in life was to find the right sense and to search for beauty, for goodness, and to try to understand what was good and right. This is the world in which I grew up. Therefore, for me this was the alpha and the omega; I mean, the world is really built around this idea. So, when I realized that I wanted to become a filmmaker, I still associated cinema with these philosophical ideas simply because these ideas are part of my personality. This means that for me life is a search for the good, the beautiful, and the tentative despair to understand how to approach what. Finally, for me, cinema is nothing but another way to practice philosophy. However, as I was saying at beginning, I don’t feel legitimate enough to talk about philosophy, like I cannot pretend that my cinema is philosophical. Philosophy is philosophy and cinema is cinema but it is true that for me, at least, it is the only way; it is my way to handle these questions. For me, cinema is a search for wisdom, a search for good and for beauty, like philosophy could have been a search for my parents. If it is just me then I am incapable of reading a tale, I am incapable of doing a philosophical dissertation. There is something very technical in there, there is an intellectual exercise for which I am not talented. I am more into intuition and the poetry of things, but at the end of the day the quest is the same.

NOTEBOOK: In Nathalie’s mind there is a separation between acting and thinking. She seems radical in her thinking, but in her actual life she is conservative—especially compared to her young friend, Fabien (Roman Kolinka).

HANSEN-LØVE: I don’t think that she is less radical, but I simply think that there is a misunderstanding between the two. The fact is that there is a relationship with the world that is no longer the same. He is in an ideological relationship with the world and for him it is important to not make a compromise. This means defending certain ideas, including what implicates incomprehension of others. Nathalie, on the other hand, has a much more nuanced relationship with the world. In fact, what comes out in my sense of her conflict, is more that we can see the contrast between their relationships with the world. He is wrapped up in radicalism and she is in a compromise. I understand that we can see each other like that, but for me, and maybe effectively for her, there is exhaustion and she has abandoned certain ideals. However, we could also see it differently and find that she is nuanced while he is surrounded by ideology. Ideology makes us create a simplified form of the world and she does not accept that simplification. It is very hard today to take on a character who is nuanced and that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what interests me. I think that my cinema is nuanced; it’s ambivalent.

NOTEBOOK: Can we say that you also wanted to examine the question of being radical or utopian in contemporary society?

HANSEN-LØVE: Yes, because I believe that we are living in an era when everyone takes pride in being radical and shows it off. However, I don’t believe that those who make the loudest claims to being radicals today are necessarily actual radicals. I find that there is sort of narcissism to political radicalism today which is very present in France. This is a very delicate question and I believe that my film really has a political character, even though it does not try to highlight a political radicalism. I avoided that because a lot of filmmakers and other artists do it and I find that there is something in there often that’s very narcissistic in the sense that it is very easy but it does not particularly require courage; it is nothing but a reproduction of clichés of commonplaces. When I started to write this film and create the character of Nathalie, I quickly realized that it in these times and in this political context we have a lot of things like seemingly leftist ideas, but at the same time we can also very quickly fall in a sort of simplification of the world that in my opinion is basically unfair. In this situation it becomes increasingly difficult to have and to defend a nuanced relationship in the world. It seemed to me that it was important to be courageous with that, meaning to take on a character who is not evidently on the right side, on the side of the youths who are cool and who have radical ideas—because that’s easy, it’s seductive, and it’s politically correct. For me the true reality of the character was not there and I wanted to not be afraid of this intellectual character. I think that someone who is really looking, who is really intellectually rigorous, cannot exist unless if it is in the continuation of obviously seductive ideas.

NOTEBOOK: You cast Isabelle Huppert to star in this film. Huppert is often characterized as a rebel in cinema, especially when I think of her roles in Elle or ThePiano Teacher. However, you have said that you wanted to create a nuanced position in relation to life and ideals in the film. Given this, why did you cast Huppert, who brings with her some prejudgments about her characters in the cinema?

HANSEN-LØVE: We had previously worked together and I always found that there was something childishly malicious in her. Of course, there is this tension and this violence that she plays really well, but when we see it in reality she in fact has something a lot more juvenile than her hardness in the films. She interprets with brilliance but for me that’s not all of her—she has that in her, but she is not just that, and that always interests me. Regardless of whether an actor is famous or completely unknown, when I film them I try to show them in a new light. For example, when I filmed Louis-Do de Lencquesaing in Father of My Children it was not because of the roles he had played before; it was because I had seen him at a dinner, I had seen him laugh, and I found that he had something shiny about him, he had a prestige, he had something gloomy to him that we already know, but at the same time he had a light there.

That’s what interested me with Isabelle—I went looking for the light in her as opposed to the darkness, even though I knew that this dark part, this cruelty that she has that’s extraordinary. She also serves me a lot for the character, which also has this irony, this distance, something harsh. Finally, Nathalie, Isabelle’s character in the film, is very spiritual, so the fact that Isabelle would have this harshness, it really carries a character. With Isabelle this interested us and interested her as well, because she knew that it wasn’t something that she had played recently, to go search for the opening, the tenderness, the softness that we see in her, in all the roles that she has played recently.

NOTEBOOK: In a way, you searched for transcendence in the ordinary?

HANSEN-LØVE: Yes, exactly, but I’m also looking to say it in another way, I look for the invisible in the real. I look for the beauty in every day. I don’t believe in realism. When people tell me “your movies are realist” then I can say that yes, it’s true that I try to give a sense of reality. I try to make it so that people have this feeling of a cinema that is real. However, it is not the reality as it is that interests me. What interests me is not to reproduce the real but to transcend it, to transmit a feeling of invisibility. And this for me is a subject that is infinite, meaning one can make movies all his life to try to get closer to it; it is something passionate. That’s why when I hear the word “realism” it always makes me feel weird because yes, my cinema is apparently completely anchored in reality but what interests me is something that goes above and beyond the surface.

NOTEBOOK: Your camera movements remind me of the films of Eric Rohmer, as does the music that you use.

HANSEN-LØVE: Well, in fact, there is very little music in the film; there are only three songs in the entire thing. If we compare to Rohmer then the big difference is that his cinema is really made rhythmically by its use of language. The way in which language progresses is the music of Rohmer’s movies. In my movies, I believe that the internal music rests on a type of equilibrium between talking and silence. This means that there is a lot less dialogue in my films than in Rohmer’s. There are scenes with long dialogues but there are also a lot of long moments which are purely impressionist, like landscapes. And finally, the film rests a lot on a type of dialectic between the silences and the conversations and the music. In fact, in my films it is contained, contained, contained. You see, there is no music. The first fifty minutes of Things to Come has no music and then, all of a sudden, when the music comes in a moment, it comes out like something that spouts out that for me contains all the emotion that it had retained before. My movies rest a lot on a sort of equilibrium between the retained and something that comes out in an almost brutal way.

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