Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Stars: Paul Blain, Constance Rousseau, Marie-Christine Friedrich
Mia Hansen-Løve has had an almost perfect career to date (or, at least, as far as I’ve been able to see – her 2018 feature Maya is still MIA as far as UK distribution is concerned). The five features we have been treated to have all been masterpieces. She’s quickly proven herself one of the modern greats. And revisiting her 2007 debut All is Forgiven (French: Tout est pardonné), its even more apparent that her particular genius was there from the very start. Along with her obsession with the propulsive march of time.
We begin in Vienna in 1995. Victor (Paul Blain) plays with his young daughter, Pamela (Victoire Rousseau). Hansen-Løve goes to great pains to show the warm bond between them. Still, its presented at this stage as light colour. The feathering of character, before time will reveal the pressing importance of their relationship to her story. After a pleasant family gathering, we splinter off with Victor and come to understand that, while a loving father, he’s also an itinerant heroin addict. The first half of All is Forgiven will chart the detrimental effects of his habit on both himself and the family unit, before a dramatic time-jump of 11 years cues up the second half in which Pamela (Constance Rousseau) has become a teenager, resentful of the father she perceives as a homewrecker. In these latter stages, All is Forgiven becomes a question of what can be salvaged, as its title suggests. It almost yearns for a question mark.
All is Forgiven was jarred back into my mind in the first week of this year when MUBI presented it in their annual ‘First Films First’ strand that kick-starts every January. Since then I’ve been manufacturing my own Hansen-Løve retrospective one evening a week, following this wonderful film with her subsequent efforts Father of my Children, Goodbye First Love, Eden and Things to Come. It’s the first time I’ve approached her films in close proximity, and what’s struck me is how this tender, naturalistic, wholly unforced first film (now my favourite of hers) acts as a kind of gateway to all the others. The consistency is astounding.
People are always on the move in her work. Where other filmmakers will cut between scenes of people having arrived somewhere, Hansen-Løve carves out time in her narratives for the in-between actions. The transitory moments. People walking, cycling, driving, commuting. Her characters stride through space and her camera follows them, only to reset and watch them move with purpose once again. This fluid preoccupation with forward motion drives not only the momentum of her films, but her aforementioned fixation with how we move through our lives and move through time.
Her first three films in particular are notably bisected. All is Forgiven is the most dramatic story of two halves, leaping over a full decade in an instant. Goodbye, First Love is a little more tentative, making quick little jumps but still clearly subject to a pronounced demarcation. Father of my Children is bisected in another, more surprising way; by mortality – the film literally hands over to supporting players when it’s lead abruptly exits the narrative. Then there’s the relentless forward motion of Eden, which covers over two decades but never has its lead characters age (an unspoken nod to the varying stages of their collective arrested development). All is Forgiven reveals that this prepossession is, for now, an absolutely vital part of what makes Hansen-Løve tick. As intrinsic an identifier of her work as Spike Lee’s double dolly shots or M Night Shyamalan’s third-act rug-pulls.
If this essay is becoming less about All is Forgiven and more about Hansen-Løve’s work as whole, its also worth praising the maturity in her observational cinema. Social realism is often presented forcefully, with an insistence on grittiness or faux urgency. Rough. Handheld. Edgy, the way life is. The heavy-handed champagne socialism of Ken Loach, for example. Hansen-Løve’s work, on the other-hand, is less prone to egocentric posturing. Her camera is often active, but it’s deliberately so. Like her characters, she moves with purpose. Performances are kept at a measured, genuinely naturalistic level. It engenders our empathy acutely; even for the rotters, the antagonists, the rogues like Victor. But the people who inhabit her films don’t fall into easily defined categories. All are allowed their complexities; their positives and negatives. Her make-believe feels effortlessly real, even when its asking us to accept huge leaps.
Like her former partner Olivier Assayas, Hansen-Løve also has one hell of a way with a needle-drop (no pun intended, given the theme of this particular film). Few things kick as hard as The Raincoats’ cover of “Lola” which soundtracks a scuzzy party scene here. Then later, after the 11-year jump, a simple scene of Pamela and her friends dancing in a nightclub prefigures the euphoria of Eden. Bodies lost in celebration. Another way in which her cinema is utterly enamoured with motion.
What makes this my favourite of her films? That’s almost impossible to say. The way it’s almost impossible to choose between four or five Hirokazu Kore-Eda pictures. The quality across the board is so uniformly high that the statement itself comes to feel quite absurd. It could be, partly, because this is the hardest to see. The other four I’ve mentioned all have had physical releases in the UK. On DVD or blu-ray they all live in the same cupboard here at The Lost Highway Hotel. All is Forgiven doesn’t, so it feels precious. When it appears – as on MUBI at the start of this year, or in rare cinematic retrospectives – it feels like an opportunity to be pounced upon. Frustratingly, perhaps, I’ve waited until the film is about to leave the service before writing this piece. If you’re reading this soon after its posting, it’s probably just disappeared into the ether again. Poof. Like cigarette smoke curling into the air.
But it isn’t just the scarcity of the film. If any of the UK’s boutique blu-ray labels were to make it widely available (hint hint), it’d still sit top of the deck, for me. In part its those performances. Paul Blain walks a tightrope here, turning on the charm in the first half even as his Victor makes a succession of contemptible mistakes, appearing more rueful and honestly changed when we encounter him again later. Hansen-Løve acknowledging the magnetism of the ‘bad boy’. As astounding in a different way is Constance Rousseau as the older version of Pamela. There’s something profoundly vulnerable in her performance that is also allowed to transform.
And the end is pitch-perfect, prefiguring the similarly immaculate final scene of Goodbye First Love. Seemingly with a decision made, Pamela gets up and walks away from us, into the background of the picture. Hansen-Løve lets her go. Lets her take her decision with her. In a moment of pointed inaction on this director’s part, she is signalling to us that this is where we get off, but that life goes on. Inexorably it goes on. An unstoppable ride with only one direction. With that in mind, what we choose to hold onto or discard – be they people or resentments – are the most important and revelatory aspects of our lives. And thus her cinema comes to feel profound without force. It’s all a beautiful, bittersweet, happy-sad reflection of the real. It’s all true.