The cinema of Mia Hansen-Løve is both captivating and elusive – with no better example than her latest feature, Maya, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018 and is yet to be released in the UK. Logistical and emotional delays and distances feel entwined throughout Hansen-Løves oeuvre . Lillian Crawford digs deeper into the filmmaker’s slippery emotional mapping.
Falling in love with cinema and with Mia Hansen-Løve, for me, were simultaneous. I’d liked films before, but nothing in my teens resonated until I saw Goodbye, First Love. Here was a girl at odds with the world wondering what to do with her life, accepting that she didn’t need to decide yet. She thinks she loves a boy, thinks she might prefer an older man, and lets it all go – an old hat left to float down the river. We see her naked, but she isn’t sexualised. In contrast to decades of Americanised ‘perfection’, Hansen-Løve gave me the female representation I needed so I could see my natural body as beautiful.
I’ve seen all Hansen-Løve’s films to date, and think they’re all masterpieces. But why are they also so hard to watch? I can’t imagine any other stories more watchable, these gentle reflections of life as it’s lived. But unlike her contemporary Céline Sciamma, Hansen-Løve’s films are difficult to watch in that they’re physically elusive. In light of the success of her sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma’s films are now widely accessible, including her debut feature, Water Lilies. It’s inexplicable that Sciamma’s film is available on DVD and streaming in the UK while Hansen-Løve’s debut, All is Forgiven, still isn’t – especially since both films shared the national Louis Delluc Prize for Best First Film in 2007.
There is a limited number of copies of All is Forgiven floating around – one of which, to my delight, I happened upon in my college’s library. The film draws an exquisite portrait of a flawed man, played by Paul Blain, and his struggles with drugs and women. Hansen-Løve’s bleakest film, it’s also her most conventional in its closed ending. Her next film, Father of My Children, is thematically similar, tackling grief and family tragedy, but it’s easier to find on DVD. Curzon’s championing of her work continued with Goodbye, First Love and Things to Come, while the semi-biographical Eden, inspired by her DJ brother Sven, screened at the 2014 London Film Festival. With these successes behind her, you’d think Hansen-Løve was at the peak of her career.
Alack, after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, her latest film, Maya, still hasn’t been released in the UK. It will be a blip – Hansen-Løve’s next film, Bergman Island, will be her first English-language project, starring Mia Wasikowska, Tim Roth, and Phantom Thread breakout star Vicky Krieps, which was set for Cannes 2020 but has been delayed by the pandemic. Maya offered a segue into anglophone cinema, spoken in broken English for much of the runtime, with only about 20 minutes of French dialogue. Since it’s only available on French Amazon Prime Video there aren’t English subtitles – but it’s worth persisting with even if you don’t know the language.
My affection for Maya made the search worthwhile, unlike the journeys Hansen-Løve’s protagonists often undergo. Eden is both her longest film and the one that covers the largest expanse of time, painting the French club scene at the turn of the 21st century. It’s no künstlerroman, a story of an artist’s growth; rather our protagonist Paul falls and falls as a DJ. Like the film producer in Father of My Children, he’s a background figure who never reaches prominence. These are the people Hansen-Løve is fascinated by, the ones who never make it, because no one else will tell their story.
It’s not these failed men I connect with, but their heteroromantic interests. Tired of their partners not going anywhere, Hansen-Løve’s women take flight and find their own way. When philosophy teacher Nathalie discovers her husband has cheated on her in Things to Come, she flees and finds better company in her cat and the open countryside. What’s so relatable is the sense of wanting to be an independent woman whilst remaining attracted to a man. Her mind wants to leave while her heart anchors her to the ground.
This conflict is shared by both war journalist Gabriel and the titular Indian woman in Maya. The film begins with him in a hotel bathroom washing away four months spent in Syria as an ISIS hostage. He never discusses his experience, but the bruise on his back betrays his silence. Hansen-Løve’s characters rarely speak their feelings aloud – she relies on her actors, and an engaged audience, to converse through surfaces. Gabriel needs to escape, and we go with him. Just because someone is reserved, in the shadows, doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating something worth listening to. Perhaps that’s why Maya polarised critics – you have to be on Hansen-Løve’s wavelength to tune in.
It’s not an entirely fresh start for Gabriel – he goes to his childhood home of Goa in India. He visits his godfather, Monty, whose daughter becomes Gabriel’s object/subject of fascination. Much anglophone criticism was aimed at the pair’s age gap, with Gabriel stated to be 32 while Maya is 18. Hansen-Løve doesn’t care – a student can date her archaeology professor; a young actress can date her seasoned director, as she did with Olivier Assayas. C’est la vie Parisienne.
Of course, this isn’t Paris, and while Nathalie escapes to the country from the suffocating city, Maya is Hansen-Løve’s most pointed departure from her home turf. Scenes pass by without dialogue, speaking solely through gesture and landscape. The result is a troubled sense of homely distance, an uncanny familiarity – the white Frenchman at ease in the Indian sun. While the Orientalism of Hollywood’s Asia has often been imperialistic, Hansen-Løve’s expedition has no purpose. L’art pour l’art, l’amour pour l’amour – nothing more. Some might find this frustrating, that there’s no pay-off, no narrative pleasure. For others, it’s simply real.
The Indian setting invites comparison to Jean Renoir’s 1951 film The River, based on a novel by Rumer Godden, who also wrote the book Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger adapted as Black Narcissus four years earlier. While that film should be criticised for recreating Mopu in an English film studio, Hansen-Løve and cinematographer Hélène Louvart capture the actual beauty of Goa and its people. Maya takes Renoir’s meditation on blossoming female sexuality and strips back its lavish Technicolor to present a more naturalistic depiction of India. Hansen-Løve’s partly improvised script is less Renoir, more American mumblecore – a suggestion previously made by the casting of Greta Gerwig in Eden. People stumble into each other, sometimes staying, often moving on.
Despite their attachment, the couple in Maya are destined to remain apart. They meet at the juncture when Gabriel has come to India to retreat and Maya wants to throw herself out into the world. Gabriel isn’t just displaced from France, but from Maya herself. Hansen-Løve never forces people and places together if they aren’t a natural fit. There are no romantic pairing-offs in the final chapter. If anything, she prefers a clean break-up and the sense of a fresh start. Films tend to forget life goes on, and where it does, it’s often the sign of a sequel in the works. Maya doesn’t provide that sort of pleasure – unlike the temporal expanse of Eden, this is a snapshot of life. In both cases, no one gets what they want, which is precisely what they need.
Lillian Crawford (@lillcrawf) is a writer on all things film, culture and gender. Her musings can be found at Little White Lies, Letterboxd and Varsity.