Mia Hansen-Love and the Hazy Line Where Real Life Ends and Art Begins

When the French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love was about 15, her boyfriend moved to South America. Brokenhearted, she made an impulsive decision: She cut off all her hair.

“I needed to do something radical, to be a radically different person,” she said. “I had Jean Seberg in mind.”

Soon after, a school theater teacher recommended that she audition for an ensemble film being cast locally. The project was “Late August, Early September,” directed by Olivier Assayas. Hansen-Love, sporting her sleek new hairstyle, was chosen for a role. She went on to act in another Assayas film and begin a relationship with him.

“The haircut is a crucial moment, like a turning point,” she recalled on a recent video call from her home in Montreuil, outside Paris. “Maybe it’s just a story that I tell myself, but for me, there will always be this idea that I needed to be left alone by my boyfriend, and I needed to be sad to become who I am.”

Hansen-Love, now 41, has a complex relationship with her past. The eight features she has written and directed pull so heavily from her own experiences that they are often described as autofiction. Take the coming-of-age “Goodbye First Love,” released in the United States in 2012: After the teenage protagonist’s lover decamps to South America, she chops her hair to Seberg length, accepts a new job and falls in love with her mentor.

Hansen-Love’s latest film, the meditative drama “One Fine Morning,” is equally wrung from life: It captures the recent period when the filmmaker was caring for her ailing father, Ole Hansen-Love, while beginning a new romance.

The film stars Léa Seydoux as Sandra, a Parisian translator who shifts between the roles of caretaker, mother and lover. Her father, Georg (Pascal Greggory), is a former philosophy professor suffering from Benson’s syndrome, a rare neurodegenerative disease. As his health declines, Sandra oversees his move into a care facility and helps parcel out his belongings to former students.

Critics took note of the film’s careful rhythms and quiet power. In The Times, Manohla Dargis called it “beautifully balanced, persuasive and moving,” and Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair found the final scene “softly profound” and Seydoux’s performance “finely observed and alert.”

Melvil Poupaud, left, Camille Leban Martins and Léa Seydoux in a scene from “One Fine Morning.”Credit…Carole Bethuel/Les Films Pelléas, via Sony Pictures Classics

On a video call, Seydoux characterized Sandra as “always at someone’s service” and “trying to please everyone.” The actress recognized the parallels between Sandra and Hansen-Love, but she also felt ownership over the role. “There are things about Sandra that are mine,” Seydoux said, and added that Hansen-Love “didn’t say that I was playing a version of her. But she said, ‘It’s my father’s story.’”

Hansen-Love came up with the idea for “One Fine Morning” several years ago after she, her daughter and her new partner stopped by Ole’s nursing home. It was an emotional visit, and Hansen-Love collected herself afterward by climbing the steps at Sacré-Coeur for a view of the city. “This is really something only tourists do,” she clarified, and added that they went just because the lookout was nearby.

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Once the trio reached the top, however, Hansen-Love was struck by the idea for a film that would distill her conflicting feelings. “Two things were happening at the same time in my life, and they were very opposite. One was very painful, and one was certainly complicated but happy. And I made that observation: how much it helped that I was in love to overcome — or to cope with — the experience of seeing my father slowly dying.”

Hansen-Love recreates this visit with Ole and the subsequent ascent at Sacré-Coeur to a precise degree in “One Fine Morning.” She even shot the scene in the clinic where her father once resided. (Ole died early in the pandemic, soon after Hansen-Love wrote the screenplay.) She hoped the film would encapsulate the “secret dialogue” between tragedy and joy that crystallized for her that day.

“Life sometimes gives us reasons to despair, and on the other hand, it gives us reasons to hope,” she said.

Hansen-Love grew up in a small, ground-floor apartment in Paris near a Metro station. One of her clearest childhood memories is the sound of the train cars screeching away from the stop. During holiday seasons, her parents, who both taught philosophy, would shepherd her and her elder brother to her grandmother’s remote house in the mountains, near the source of the Loire River.

Léa Seydoux said that on shoots, the director knows exactly what she wants: “Like, if you scratch your head, for example, in a take, she’s like, ‘No, we’ll do it again. You scratched your head.’”Credit…Samantha Hellmann for The New York Times

The region sometimes appears in Hansen-Love’s stories. Her second feature, “Father of My Children” (2010), depicts a Parisian family weekending at their ivied country estate, and “Goodbye First Love” contains full scenes set at her childhood haunts, like the Loire riverbank.

“I think the theme of water, and rivers, and going back to some source, whether it be a geographic or a spiritual one — that’s something that nourishes my work,” she said.

For many years, Hansen-Love was tied to Assayas. Not only did they share a life, but their work also seemed to be in conversation. You might liken them to the American filmmaking partners Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, or the married French new wave directors Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy.

Hansen-Love and Assayas never married, despite accounts to the contrary (“fake information,” she said with a laugh), and they broke up around seven years ago. They share a 13-year-old daughter.

A deep thinker and a cordial, ruminative conversationalist, Hansen-Love is notably private about her romantic partnerships. Given the richness of her storytelling, it’s tempting to pull clues from her work, like “Bergman Island” (2021), which follows two filmmakers whose relationship is on the rocks.

I asked Hansen-Love if she grew tired of outsiders inquiring into her personal life after seeing her films. “I don’t feel I’m allowed to complain, because I think it’s my fault,” she said. “I’ve never tried to hide that my films were partly inspired by experiences from my life.” In a nod to her philosophically minded parents, she added, “I grew up with two people obsessed with the quest for truth, so it’s very difficult for me to lie about it.”

“Bergman Island” could be seen as Hansen-Love’s artist statement on the topic. The drama intercuts scenes of a filmmaker (played by Vicky Krieps) with episodes from the story she is crafting, and in doing so explores how the membrane between art and life can be porous.

As Hansen-Love put it, the film is about “that vertigo of mixing life and fiction, and not knowing where you are, and who you are.”

In “One Fine Morning,” Sandra takes refuge from her daughterly duties in an incipient affair with Clément (Melvil Poupaud), an enigmatic married cosmochemist. Playing the paramour, Poupaud exudes aloofness and a touch of danger.

Hansen-Love had been enamored with Poupaud since she saw him in Éric Rohmer’s “A Summer’s Tale” in 1996. “I feel lucky that I was never able to offer him a part before. Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s not because I wanted to keep our relationship virgin for this part,” she said.

By phone, Poupaud — who knew Hansen-Love socially — said that he had been eager to work with her ever since seeing her debut feature, “All Is Forgiven” (2007). He was moved by her work “almost in a magical way,” he said. “No big events, no big scenes, no drama, but something from real life.”

When viewers who’ve seen her personal films ask Hansen-Love about her relationships, the director said, “I don’t feel I’m allowed to complain, because I think it’s my fault.”Credit…Samantha Hellmann for The New York Times

I mentioned that Clément was a dead ringer for Hansen-Love’s current partner, the filmmaker Laurent Perreau, and Poupaud agreed. “When we did the test — we tried the clothing and that look of my character — I’d never met her boyfriend,” he said. “And one day he came on set and I was like, wow, that’s exactly who I am. She had done all this in a secret way,” but also in a manner that was “very precise and determined.”

Both Poupaud and Seydoux said that Hansen-Love’s process included capturing many takes of each shot.

“Sometimes you feel like she’s waiting for the scene to match with what she lived, or what she really has in mind,” Poupaud said, “and since we don’t know what she lived and what she really has in mind, it’s like waiting for the good moment, the good move, the good mood to appear during the work.”

Describing Hansen-Love as an intellectual, Seydoux recalled, “She knows exactly what she wants. Like, if you scratch your head, for example, in a take, she’s like, ‘No, we’ll do it again. You scratched your head.’”

Of her eight features, Hansen-Love considers only two or three to be “kind of self-portraits.” Yet many of the others can be understood as studies of people dear to her. “All Is Forgiven” was inspired by Hansen-Love’s uncle; “Father of My Children,” about a film producer who goes bankrupt and dies by suicide, is a sketch of the French producer Humbert Balsan, who died in 2005.

She also makes portraits of immediate family members: “Eden” (2015), which Hansen-Love wrote alongside her brother, Sven, chronicled his life as a D.J., and “Things to Come” (2016), starring Isabelle Huppert, was based on the experiences of the filmmaker’s mother.

Hansen-Love said she often wavered in doubt before beginning scripts, thinking, “Maybe I should really not write this film. Maybe it’s too painful, it’s too close to my life.” But the angst is also fuel.

“I really grew up with such a heavy melancholy, which was transmitted to me and which I transmit back into my films,” she said. “When I do that, it emancipates me. When I put it in my films, I get rid of it.”

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