Two filmmakers uniquely fascinated with mapping and navigating moments in time, Mia Hansen-Løve and Joachim Trier, know how to pass an hour. And, in fact, their free talk on Monday evening — part of this year’s New York Film Festival, where Hansen-Løve’s “Bergman Island” and Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” are both Main Slate selections — ran about 20 minutes over its scheduled 60, though attendees packed into the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s 75-capacity Amphitheater didn’t seem to mind.
“I need so much time to tell a story,” said Hansen-Løve, discussing how the passage of days appears to ebb and flow throughout the seven patiently naturalistic features she’s directed to date, from the coming-of-age story “Goodbye First Love” (2011) to decades-spanning rave-scene drama “Eden” (2014).
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“I need years,” she said. “I need to put my characters in a situation where you see time passing, where you see them getting older.” Trier’s films, though just as meditative, take place over much shorter spans; his “Oslo, August 31st” (2011), about a recovering drug addict, covers just 24 hours.
“I remember really envying that you managed to capture that notion, within one single day,” Hansen-Løve told Trier. “That’s something I’d never know how to do.”
Trier was equally complimentary of Hansen-Løve’s work, praising her ability to imagine the lives of her characters at much greater length than he believes himself capable. “I must say that I feel at home in your films and your aesthetic, your way of treating time and your humanity,” he said in return, adding that he considers “Eden” “a pure masterpiece.”
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Whether waxing lyrical about one another’s work, discussing how their shared love of Ingmar Bergman drove their two most recent projects or reflecting upon working with actors (including rising star Anders Danielsen Lie, who played major roles in both new films and joined the filmmakers on stage as a surprise special guest), Hansen-Løve and Trier kept the tone light and convivial throughout.
They were buoyed in this respect by film programmer Maddie Whittle, who moderated the talk with perceptive questions and a just-as-critical willingness to step back and let the dialogue flow freely — especially once it became clear these two emerging auteurs of contemporary European cinema had plenty they’d been waiting to say to each other.
Hansen-Løve and Trier first met in person three years ago, on the remote Swedish island of Fårö, where the legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman had lived and made several of his most famous films, among them “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Persona” (1966), and “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973). The latter film’s influence is felt particularly strongly across both “Bergman Island,” about married filmmakers (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) who escape to Fårö for a writing retreat, and “The Worst Person in the World,” focused on a young woman (Renata Reinsve) whose fraught relationships with two different men are explored across 12 episodic chapters.
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“Should I try to talk about Bergman?” Trier wondered aloud, raising his eyebrows in mock despair. Trier first encountered the iconic director in his mid-twenties — “when I was a little more mature and unhappy” — and was most struck by the “ruthless proximity” of his fascination with human relationships, he said. “The art of Bergman is the art of the closeup,” explained Trier, “of pushing the camera up against the human being and understanding that you can observe a person as intimately as possible with a camera and you’ll never penetrate, quite, what that character is.”
The director added that “there’s a truth to Bergman, and his ruthless searching for the marginal experiences within existential individuals,” further elaborating that “he takes his characters to very shameful, sometimes ugly, sometimes terrible places that feel truthful. And there’s a sense in his cinema of going into situations of relations between siblings, between partners of love, all kinds of situations often idealized by cinema. He tears off the veneer and the surface, pushing us into spaces that are quite uncomfortable but that feel truthful and therefore quite comforting.”
From Hansen-Løve’s perspective, though, Bergman was most influential in his commitment to studying human relationships in their totality as much as their realism. “That, to me, makes him the greatest: the fact that he spent his whole life as a director exploring human relationships, and he did it with courage, with bravery, without fear, without shame,” she said, alternating between English and French via a translator.
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“This will be a model that I would never pretend to achieve, in showing human relationships in their full rawness, in their nudity, but it’s still something we strive to attain,” she added. “It’s a model to go after, because of the truth achieved in its representation of human relationships. In his films, it never seems about what the public is expecting, how it should be, or what is a “good script.” It’s never about that. It’s only about his obsession of telling the truth of what a relationship is.”
Hansen-Løve and Trier had intersected in Fårö that fateful summer when she was preparing to shoot “Bergman Island” and Trier was participating in Bergman Week, an annual celebration of the director’s oeuvre that includes films, guests, seminars, and guided tours. The two met for dinner, and both came away with the sense they’d encountered a kindred spirit.
“It felt like I’d known you forever,” said Hansen-Løve, a sentiment Trier reciprocated — before also revealing that he’d actually seen, if not formally met, his fellow filmmaker years before that meal. Familiar with Hansen-Løve as an actress due to her breakthrough role in “Late August, Early September” (1998), he had spotted her in person at an exhibition of art students in Paris. “I’ve been stalking you for a long time,” joked Trier, drawing laughter from the audience and a wide smile from Hansen-Løve.
Declared Trier right after, “We will stop this lovefest! We’ll put it on pause. But let us just have this moment, please, because I think we genuinely share some things.”
Attendees well-versed in the work of both filmmakers surely understood where Trier was coming from. Outside of their mutual admiration for Bergman, their focus on family, and the ways in which echoes through time are central to the stories they tell, both Hansen-Løve and Trier have also explored the ways in which romantic connection can — to paraphrase an incisive question by Whittle — “serve as a focal point for navigating questions of work.”
For Hansen-Løve, nothing short of this would come naturally. “Vocation has been so much in the heart of my life, and how I work, and my personal balance,” she said. “And I don’t even know how to portray modern life without that concern.”
Trier, meanwhile, characterized “The Worst Person in the World” as his attempt to tell the story of one woman’s journey away from this question of vocation and toward inner clarity. Its protagonist “is a person who is yearning for some sense of meaning and purpose, and she doesn’t know how to find it,” said Trier. “And that is a double bind. She thinks a vocation will give her value, an idealized relationship with someone that idealizes her back, a transactionalism, [and that] is what will bring her happiness.” Instead, “it’s a long, slow journey toward self-love,” he said.
“I was joking with a friend the other day that this is my ‘Eat Pray Love,‘” added Trier, to laughter from the audience. Gallantly defending Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir (adapted into a far less-loved Ryan Murphy film), Trier argued, “It’s quite magnificent in existential terms! She realizes that she’s always had a partner, that she’s never been alone, and she doesn’t know how to love herself. She goes to Italy to learn to eat, she meets an elephant, she meditates, and she finds some kind of peace in herself. That journey is something all people have to go through.”
Starting to crack himself up at this point, Trier apologized “for sounding like a melodramatic hippie,” musing that “I guess I’m turning into one.”
A spirit of mutual generosity was on display throughout the evening, from the filmmakers’ diplomatic responses to some less-than-scintillating audience questions (“Have I ever met someone — and liked them?” Trier asked, ensuring he’d understood one) to their eagerness to share the vulnerability that both maintain is an essential process of their artistry.
“This thing of ‘revelation’ I talk about accepting my vulnerability and accepting to be more sensitive on set,” said Trier. “I think I’ve gotten better at relaxing and focusing on the right things. I’ve learned to trust my instincts.”
Added Hansen-Løve, “The more you film, the more you ask yourself questions, the more you learn, the more you experiment with different people and shooting, the better you become. I really believe that.”
Bringing things full circle, Trier noted that their shared influence illustrates this point powerfully. “Bergman made 10 films before he got really good,” said Trier. “And I’ve only made five, so I hope I still have something to do.”
“Bergman Island” opens in theaters Oct. 15, from IFC Films, while “The Worst Person in the World” will hit screens later this year from NEON.
Follow along for all our coverage of the 2021 New York Film Festival.
Bonus: Here’s a NYFF talk with Joachim Trier, Renate Reinsve, and Anders Danielsen Lie on “The Worst Person in the World.”