Mia Hansen-Løve's third film, Goodbye First Love, is a frank, lyrical, intensely nostalgic and psychologically acute movie about the passage of time and the persistence of feeling. Without visibly aging, actress Lola Creton, who turned 18 a few months ago, plays eight years in the life of Camille, beginning on the day she loses her virginity to her high school boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky, who doesn't age either). The film moves fleetly from the turn of '99 into 2000, up through Camille's coping and new coupling with her architecture professor over the course of 2003, and Sullivan's reappearance at the start of her career in 2007 and a couple seasons thereafter-nearly a decade passes within ellipsis, as time in the film moves like a current, holding up and then rushing around obstacles; it's a dizzying mix of in-the-moment experience and wised-up perspective, which is probably down to the writer-director's own experience. ("When I was 14," she says," I almost left home to live with a guy I loved. And I think I was an adult very quickly.") I spoke to Hansen-Løve last fall in a semiprivate reception room at Lincoln Center when she was in town for her film's American premiere at the New York Film Festival; her husband, Olivier Assayas, sat quietly across the room, reading magazines.
The way Camille's life in school and work and family sort of flows around all the story of this attachment reminded me a little bit of The Age of Innocence. It's about a very small, intense period of time that both people refer to as their real life, amid everything else. And I wanted to ask about conveying a balance between this attachment at the center of the film and the rest of her life that goes on alongside...
You mean the fact that you have someone who is shown during a short period of time that I show very precisely and go fast around the other years or...
The rest of her life is glimpsed through the story, but the center of the story seems to be her relationships with Sullivan and Lorenz. How did you go about trying to find a balance between telling the story of this attachment and telling the story of her life?
I spend a lot of time trying to find the architecture of the film, and this film I saw like an arc. But to me it was not as much a balance between this obsession that she has and then her life that she constructs. The first part, the way I saw it was as completely cut off from the world. The first part, most of the scenes are in flats, or when you go to the countryside you don't see anybody, so like living in a bubble together. It's only about their relationship, and for me there is some kind of alienation in this way of living. Because it's all about home and the world never exists outside of it.
And when he leaves, in a way it's the beginning of the real film. In the sense that it's where she starts to have a real connection to the world, because she has no choice. She starts to study and go out and to work and to be connected to other people. And for me the movement of the film is all about this opening, it's about an opening to the world. Also in the way I filmed it because the more the film goes the more you see the city and the people.
In the first part it's a little more abstract, and then when you see the background scenery, in the second part you see more people, it fills up with more life. You can recognize specific places in Paris, I tried to film places where you have a lot of people. Whereas in the first part it's more empty Paris. To me, the way I constructed the film, it was that not much of a movement between her relationship with Sullivan and the other life, but more this opening, progressively. I see it more that, for me, the first part is really about their relationship and the second part is about her being alone and learning how to be a person on her own. And the third part is about loving two people in real life.
What you're talking about reminds me somewhat of the end of your last film, The Father of My Children. They're both about a young woman who learns to be in the world, to participate in culture and the life of Paris. And you've worked with a couple of very gifted young actresses, and given them that experience to go through. How much control do you try to have, as a director, over the actresses? How much do you try to let them discover it on their own?
I think I trust them. I think on the one hand I work a lot on the set, meaning I make a lot of shots. I don't know how it is here in the U.S. but in France there is some kind of an average of how many shots you make. And it's more like six, seven, eight, something like that. And we do more like 17, 18. And on the set they were making bets on how much I would do. But I didn't do that just because... Very often the more I work, the more things I get and at the end I have the feeling that I got the scene. And that I didn't know before what it was. And that's how I'm working with them. And that's the part that really, on the set, we work a lot together.
On the other hand, I think I trust them a lot, meaning I'm not really there to make her give me a lot of psychological connections, or talking about the characters. I trust much more the concrete indications, I work much more on the rhythm of the scene. And the young actress I work with on this film, she's extremely instinctive, she doesn't talk. In the beginning when we started, I didn't know her very well, I didn't know how she felt because she's extremely shy, she never says anything about her feelings, and I don't know how deep she was feeling things, if she needed me. In the beginning I was telling her many things or I tried to because I thought, I dunno, maybe she wants me to do that. But eventually I would just, like [nods], "Could you be just like... yes? Ok."
When you're making a film about being a teenager, are you trying to be faithful to reality, to memories? Or are you trying in some way to heighten it, to make it a little more cinematic?
No, not at all. It was really an obsession to be faithful to my memory and my experience of life, even if it's not glamorous, or even if it's deceptive, and if it doesn't go in the direction you would like it to go to. When I go over my screenplay I always make a religious effort to eliminate anything that's something that would have come in because it's an influence from another source or something. I like it to stay very close to me. I think you want to be original, not try to be universal. I've always written with the faith or the hope that the more specific I am, the more honest I am with my own experience, the more chances I get to, maybe not to be universal, just to touch people in a deeper way.