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Only 29, Mia Hansen-Løve is already a veteran of three careers. As a teenager, she acted in two films by her now-partner, Olivier Assayas—Late August, Early September (1998) and Les Destinées (2000); from 2003 to 2005, she was a contributor to Cahiers du cinéma. As a writer-director, she follows her assured 2007 debut, All Is Forgiven, about a drug-addicted dad, with an even more wrenching look at another troubled, charismatic patriarch. Inspired by the life and death of French film producer Humbert Balsan, who worked on movies by Claire Denis and Lars von Trier, among many others, The Father of My Children is as precisely detailed in its depiction of the stress and bureaucracy of how movies get made as it is of the emotional fallout of incomprehensible loss. I met with Hansen-Løve in March, when she was in town for her film's New York premiere at New Directors/New Films.
What were the characteristics of Humbert Balsan that you most wanted to capture? His charm, his elegance—how he seduced me, in a way. The film is about a presence: the presence when he's here and the presence when he's not here. The thing that inspires my films is real people and their aura. That's the main reason why I make films—not to transmit a "message." The film is first about a human being.
How did Balsan seduce you? He saw my first short film in a festival, but didn't know anything about me. A few weeks later, he saw my byline in Cahiers du cinéma and contacted me. We had a long conversation, but I was very young—I was 22, he was 50. He had this curiosity about me, even though I hadn't really made anything. I had never met anyone before who had such insight. There was also a closeness between us in that his relationship to cinema paralleled my own. He started as an actor with Bresson, and I started as an actress. He had been in Lancelot of the Lake, which was the first Bresson film I ever saw, and one of the first articles I ever wrote was about this film. When I met him years later, I fell in love with him immediately—on an intellectual level—without realizing that he had been the hero of the Bresson film that I had liked so much.
Were there any films about movie-making that inspired this one? The Father of My Children is very different in that it focuses on a producer, which we rarely see. Maybe the only film that had an influence—but it's kind of a post-influence—is Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep [about the chaotic shooting of a remake of Les Vampires, starring Maggie Cheung as herself]. I saw it after I made my film. I didn't want to see it when I wrote the script because I was afraid it would be a source of inhibition for me. [Laughs.]
Is your depiction of Moon Films—the production company that Grégoire, the Balsan surrogate, runs—a fairly accurate portrayal of your own experience in the French film industry? It is actually a very realistic picture but just of this one particular company, of Humbert Balsan's company. It shouldn't be confused with what all the rest of independent French cinema is like. What I tried to do is show that kind of everything-going-on-at-once and the energy and intensity level at the office. This was very typical of his office.
Is your film a lament on the state of independent French film production? It's absolutely not a lament at all. It's not meant to be a complaint in any way, either. If the film had been done that way, it would have been a betrayal of Balsan's spirit.
You've had earlier professions as an actor and a film critic. Is there anything about this work that you miss? Both my careers weren't very long, and they're really in the past. My career as a critic was not terribly brilliant, but it taught me the importance of writing. But one thing that really marked me, which I discovered as an actress, was the real pleasure, the physical pleasure, of being on the set. And I found that, after I stopped being on the set, I really missed it. So I was chasing after it.
'The Father of My Children' opens May 28 at the IFC Center