When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights.
The flip side to having the last film of the day leave its taste in your mouth is the revelation that sometimes it is just the better film of the two. My last film of day 5 was Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya. Earlier in the day, I had watched Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s Mes Provinciales (playing off Pascal’s Lettres Provinciales, a text which becomes a touchstone of sorts in the film which is otherwise also called A Paris Education), a sincere film about the making of a young cinephile who leaves Lyon for Paris. I was largely underwhelmed by its rendition in monochrome. The script is clever, but not funny—as these self-conscious films should be, I think perhaps unfairly—and the casting of Sophie Verbeeck and Corentin Fila as young idealists is inspired enough to merit a rewatch eventually, maybe. A sweet friend of mine who confessed to me that she dislikes sleeping through films—and whom I had tried to convince that she should think otherwise, telling her Kiarostami’s oft-quoted line about how he is happy when his films put you to sleep, linking her eagerly in a try-hard moment to a LARB essay on sleep and Kiarostami and Jonathan Crary—dozed off during A Paris Education too, waking up during a scene when Sophie Verbeeck’s activist character talked about falling asleep in films and how she was glad for that. I nudged my friend, trying not to laugh, and she smiled at me. The next shot in the film showed Jonathan Crary’s book on sleep lying creased, spine-broken, on a shelf in a corner of a bedroom. We both giggled. I will remember A Paris Education for this alone because as they say, you can’t make this shit up.
The last Mia Hansen-Løve (MHL) I watched in a cinema was Things To Come, the very accomplished film about a philosophy professor (Isabelle Huppert) emerging from her chrysalis in mid-life that Hansen-Løve made prior to her latest, Maya. It was spring in England, and I had spent all day anxiously waiting for a work-related email. Eventually, I couldn’t take the worry and had decided that only going to the cinema would take me out of myself. I had forgotten just how adept Hansen-Løve is at making this type of cinema, where characters spend the whole film settling and re-settling themselves through love—of oneself, of music, of another, of architecture—before pausing to gather themselves. Her films linger on this pause. It’s very difficult to pay attention both to yourself and another person simultaneously, and in a MHL film, you don’t exist because you cannot look away. I am grateful for this quality in her work. That spring evening, I was able to check my email one last time, and put my phone away.
Maya could have easily been little but a very cloying film. The premise remains vexing no matter how you summarise it: white guy goes to India to heal. Effectively, since MHL—a filmmaker personally very important to me—talks about the film in a way I don’t fully wish for, or recognise. The film exceeds her vision, and more context helps: Gabriel, a war reporter (played tenderly by Roman Kolinka) formerly held captive by an extremist group, is brought back to France along with one of his two colleagues also held captive. Gabriel suffers from PTSD, but is clear that ‘couch therapy’ isn’t going to work for him. He decides to go to India, where he grew up as a child, to take a break from work and recover while restoring the Goan house where he and his mother used to live. In Goa, he meets his godfather’s teenage daughter, Maya.
The film is by no means Hansen-Løve’s finest, but it is more than merely watchable. This continues to puzzle me. In spite of the hesitations in the script particularly towards the end, some tepid dialogue, and the potentially uneven terrain of the relationship between the lead characters whose age gap is over a decade even as the relationship is wary rather than predatory, Maya is stirring in the winding way that only MHL films are. One reason for this is that the landscape of Goa that MHL sees—the water, the nooks, the dullness of the evening beach, the disappearing paths between trees, the always distant lights, the way time drips even when nothing is still, the perpetually arriving nights—is one I recognise instantly as home. This thrills me, as I am unused to Indian cities being filmed with any degree of admiration or intimacy at all by white directors, who generously exoticise and caricaturise the country.
The other reason I continue to dwell on Maya is Hansen-Løve’s eye, and the way she takes in the world around her. The dispositions of her characters ooze out of their slightest movements, their habitudes, creating an emotional underbelly that continues to be hemmed in lightly as the films wear on. In Le Père de Mes Enfants, the father walking through ruins eagerly explaining them to his family fills up the screen as each member slowly leaves, bored, until he’s left talking, engrossed, to his wife, who is the only person who stays. It’s a rare moment of respite for him. Lola Créton placing a hat on her head, frowning, marks a woman who dreams uneasily all through Un Amour de Jeunesse. And in Maya, we watch Gabriel’s face contour with worry and then sickness, muscles tensing up, hands seizing air, when he can’t spot Maya in the sea at the beach where they have just arrived—until he does, and the camera tracks the arc of a man who was for several moments walking a tightrope of unimaginable loss.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s protagonists across her films walk this tightrope at some point, because they are all people coming to terms with their place in the world. We catch them attempting an arrival, an acquiescence. They never arrive. Instead, they find themselves elsewhere. They flounder, weep on beds, draw the curtains, gaze out of car windows. They lean against corners, filling them up with themselves, deferring moments of outside time where life continues to happen. They go on long walks or drives in silence. They spend time on their own, looking for notebooks or restoring old bedrooms. They fall asleep on others’ shoulders. Vulnerability is a hot, bright pulse, quickening around other people only when they are noticed.
MHL is interested in people who are always in the midst of searching, adjusting to the presence of those whose lives rub up against theirs in the persistent ways. One of most touching scenes I’ve watched in any film recently arrives several minutes after shy Gabriel is introduced to Maya’s pet turtle, Scooter, who is perched on the steps leading up to Maya’s room. In this blink-long scene, months later, Gabriel runs up the steps looking for Maya, who isn’t there, and spots Scooter sitting inconspicuously in his usual spot. There is no one else around. “Salut Scooter,” he greets the silent turtle, and continues up the stairs.
It’s another way to be.
The most absorbing parts of Maya are those where both Maya and Gabriel exist as fulcrums of comfort for each other. The sequence where they explore the temples of Hampi, each wandering off on their own, occasionally spotting the other through a crumbling window, or across a pillar, is an immensely delicate one that strings out the expansiveness of solitude within each character for the other to see. In a much later scene, when Maya and Gabriel go for a night drive on the wintry streets of Goa, we see that this companionship has evolved: she is cautious, he is visibly aching. Both hold on to their desolations more fiercely than ever, but his is outward-facing for the first time in months.
Arshi Bannerjee wears her restlessness to great effect through the film, even as she appears self-conscious with dialogue. It does still feel odd to me that the film is called Maya, when we never really learn who exactly the titular character is. But we learn enough to recognise that while Maya’s observant but unassuming presence grows to assume an immense importance to Gabriel as he learns to face the world again, she is also a creature of protected immanence whose shadows are cast widely across the film. ”I dream a lot,” she confesses to Gabriel, early on in the film. In a gorgeous Nick Cave song that Hansen-Løve layers unnecessarily but with a cognizant indulgence over an emotionally dense montage, Cave sings: “They told us our dreams would outlive us/ But they lied.”
Much of what I’ve enjoyed about this film festival has been the space. The space before films, in the darkness, and then emerging with yourself after with the unbelievable luxury of having lost yourself in a stack of films. Stuffed mouthfuls of narratives that quickly edge each other out. No room for anything but occasional retrospective discernment. I watched Maya with a friend, and we talked about it inadequately on our way out, as one does with freshly-exited films. It was curious though, because hurtling through the chilly night air towards the station in an auto minutes later, I was left with the same burning feeling that I have after every MHL film: that I’ve encountered myself for the first time. Like a shuttle re-entering the earth.