In person, Mia Hansen-Løve’s face still carries the same waxy alien clarity it held on screen thirteen years ago in Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September, the movie the one-time actress credits with launching her directing career. Seventeen in the film, she played the adolescent girlfriend of a middle-aged novelist, her satiny innocence in stark contrast to his craggy disenchantment. At 30, it’s clear the events of that era are still very much on her mind. Each of the three films she has written and directed—one of which won a jury prize at Cannes and another a best first feature nomination for a French Academy Award— features a teenaged girl lingering at the edge of adulthood. Hansen-Løve writes young women with eerie authenticity and has a knack for avoiding the tropes that plague movies about young women in love.
Her most recent feature, Goodbye First Love, follows eight years in the life of a Camille (Lola Créton). Sixteen when we meet her, Camille is the sort of deadly serious teenager who calls her boyfriend, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) “l’homme de sa vie” and swallows a bottle of pills after he dumps her. Later we find her in graduate school, an architecture professor named Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke) having replaced Sullivan in her bed, if not her heart. As a character, Camille, manages to be both melodramatic and believable. This is partly because of Creton’s skillful performance, but also because Camille is so deeply personal to the director, she hardly seems fictional at all. “She is me as I was,” Hansen-Løve said over crackers and tea last fall, in town for the New York Film Festival. This is so much the case that, in conversation, the director sometimes echoed the character she created. When she describes a family-owned country house featured in the film, Hansen-Løve told me in her lightly accented, not–quite-idiomatic English: “The places where I spent most of my holidays as a child, it was important for me to film them.” On screen, Camille tells Lorenz she became an architect because “Places affect me and I have to get hold of them.”
All three of Hansen-Løve’s movies feature complicated people plucked directly from her memory. Her first, All is Forgiven, about a girl plagued by her father’s drug addiction, was inspired, Hansen-Løve has said, by events that impacted her family when she was a child. The Father of My Children was modeled after the story of French independent producer Humbert Balsan, who was set to produce Hansen-Løve’s first feature before he died. Her next project takes on the electronic music scene in Paris in the 1990’s, which her brother, a professional DJ, knows well. The gradual and unpredictable pacing of each of these films mirrors real life, too. Her narratives depend on subtle emotional shifts instead of decisive events. Pivotal moments, like a principal character’s death, happen with no foreshadowing. The audience processes these episodes the way the people on screen do, uncertainly and without guidance.
This impulse towards authenticity in Hansen-Løve’s filmmaking extends even to the score. In The Father of my Children, music emanates from boom boxes or car radios. Goodbye First Love features jangly folksongs that don’t fit the film’s atmosphere. Rather than drawing the audience deeper into the story, they’re a reminder that sound is another element of art. Many scenes are silent, except for ambient noise. Hansen-Løve doesn’t work with composers. “Music is the most powerful thing for an audience. It’s not honest to use it to have strong effects on people without saying.” The director called the issue an “aesthetic and moral” problem, and slipped into French to repeat a quote: “Les spectateurs sont comme les lapins: Ça s’attrape par les oreilles.” Audiences are like rabbits: one catches them by the ears.
In an early moment in Goodbye First Love the camera lingers on Camille’s body as she tussles naked in bed with Sullivan. The image, hovering as it does in a sort of rosy morning light, is less erotic than it is nostalgic. The matter-of-fact clarity with which Camille’s torso is displayed mostly calls up is the memory of being naked in bed with the first person you loved—not for the first time, but after that, once the strangeness had worn off and left behind a sense of grown-up complicity. In an email exchange, Village Voice film critic and NYFF selection committee member Melissa Anderson called Goodbye First Love “one of the best films about heartbreak I’d ever seen.”
At a Q&A after her NYFF screening, an audience member asked what had inspired Camille’s story. Both of Hansen-Løve’s parents are philosophy instructors. From them the director has inherited the stage presence of a reserved but charismatic academic. “This film is as much about vocation and how you become who you are as it is about first love,” Hansen-Løve responded quietly, referring to the protagonist Camille, “To me there is a deep relationship to her suffering, the fact that she has to overcome this love, and the energy that she has to give to her work.” She went on to insist that architecture wasn’t meant to be a metaphor for her own filmmaking, but this is hard to believe. Hansen-Løve often describes directing as the thing that helped her to understand her place in the world, in the same way Camille discovers herself through design. Earlier, explaining what drove her to direct, she had said, “Film helps me to live better. It helps me to understand life in its complexity, in its paradox. What I hope is to give a feeling of truth.” When I asked her later what advice she might give to a younger version of herself now she paused. “I would tell her not to be afraid. I would tell myself nothing is too difficult to be filmed.”