European art cinema, from The Blue Angel to Wild Strawberries to The Soft Skin, has a history of peering into the sexual and existential lives of male intellectuals, but contains few comparable films involving well-educated women whose lives are geared around reading, conversation, and career stakes. Things to Come, then, is a step in the right direction. It follows Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy professor, as she comes to terms with a number of unexpected events in her personal and professional life. That includes a rekindled friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student whose academic pursuits have dwindled over the intervening years.
Mia Hansen-Løve has proven herself an agile practitioner of character dramas, whether depicting sexual awakening in Goodbye, First Love or chronicling the highs and lows of a globe-trotting DJ in Eden. With Things to Come, she’s arguably made her most mature film yet, gracefully illuminating Nathalie and Fabien’s predicaments without pretending to have either of them fully figured out, if only because neither of them have all of the answers either.
I spoke with Hansen-Løve about her films’ autobiographical components, the influence of Jonas Mekas on her work, and how being a philosophy teacher means giving equal footing to each word, and all it entails, of that vocation.
Both Eden and Things to Come open with your main characters at a remove from their daily lives. In the case of Eden’s protagonist, he’s fleeing the dance club and it’s unclear what’s prompting his escape. With Nathalie, she’s on vacation with her family, but it seems she’s more distracted than relaxed. Do you have a strategy for finding the entry points to your films in this way?
It’s funny that you say that, because in my next film, the one I’m getting financed now, literally the first shot will be of the main character escaping. [Laughs] But in that case, it’s in a literal way, from a hospital. But no, I wasn’t aware of that. I think the power of the filmmaker is to write directly with their unconscious—with their imagination but in the most unconscious way. A lot of the things I do aren’t on purpose. It’s just the way it is for me. I cannot decide what I write about and I cannot really decide how I write about it. Afterward, of course I can find meanings for the things and try to find connections and reasons. It’s not that things are accidental. What I mean is that I write them first and then try to figure out why. But, yeah, about the beginnings [of these two films]—another way to put it would be to say that in a lot of my films I begin with people walking or moving, like on a boat or a train. I guess it has to do also with the fact that I’m doing a portrait of characters. My films aren’t so much about story or the plot as about trying to catch a presence. I think these impressionist beginnings have to do with a quest for that presence.
You’ve explained in the past how Eden is based in part on your brother’s career as a DJ and Things to Come on your parents, who are both philosophers. Is that quest different when you’re drawing elements from people close to you in your actual life?
It’s true that they were inspired by my family, but for me, as soon as I take a pen and paper and start writing, it becomes fiction. These characters, just like the characters from my five films, have been partly inspired by people I’ve known, and always by people I love. I wouldn’t make a film that was inspired by people just because I thought it was an interesting story, or bad people, or people I read about in the papers. I have to have an intimate, deep connection to these characters. It’s not theoretical. It might sound paradoxical, but it’s all about fiction. As soon as I translate it into a story, I just try to give it a frame. You stay faithful to some things and betray others in order to make it possible to tell a story. There are things you forget, so you change or reinvent them. So it has nothing to do with a documentary. Ultimately, you pick an actor to play the character and this actor has their own presence and their own aura. That personality always influences the film, so I’m looking for it. All of this can seem somewhat contradictory, but the dialectic between reality and fiction, and the tension between the two, is at the center of my films. But when the film is over, I speak of the fact that it was inspired by these people because it’s hard not to speak about it. In the end, it’s not pure but rather an impure fiction.
You mention how your films have nothing to do with documentary, but your explanation regarding reality and fiction reminds me of someone like Jonas Mekas and his film Lost, Lost, Lost, where he takes home videos of his family but transforms them through edits and voiceover into something that nearly becomes fictional or, as you said, impure fiction.
It’s interesting that you mention Jonas Mekas. He was the first person I ever interviewed when I wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma, when I was very young. I was like 20 years old. So I watched all of his films and they impressed me a lot. Recently, I watched one of my short films again, Un Pur Esprit, my second one. It’s a black-and-white, three-minute film, shot on 16mm, handheld, no dialogue. It looks like a small Jonas Mekas film. I think I was very much influenced by him. But what I mean is that, for me, Lost, Lost, Lost and Jonas Mekas’s other films are less like documentaries and more like poems. I really do see them like poetry. That’s what I mean when I say it becomes fiction for me. It’s not about representing reality. It’s still about transforming it. He’s filming his family and the world, but at the end it’s totally something else other than reality. We can feel his beliefs and we can feel his own interiority. All these images end up being totally interior. And that’s what I’m trying to do in my own way, which is of course very different, but I’m working with reality in an intimate way. It has all to do with the invisible.