Waking Dreams: On the Films of Mikhaël Hers

By Lawrence Garcia

In all art there seems to be some principle of recurrence related to the repetitions of nature that conditions our sense of time—not just the passage of the seasons, but also the cycles of light and darkness, of waking and sleeping life. The films of Mikhaël Hers are no exception, though as with most any artist, he has his predilections. Some of his films’ titles are suggestive in this regard: Ce sentiment de l’été (2015) expresses his affinity for summer, while his latest, Les passagers de la nuit, points to an alliance with the desires of the night. This is not to say that Hers’ films are exclusively set on summer evenings, only that, no matter the setting or season, he tends to view things from outside the daily frustrations of work. His is a romantic vision: he favours those moments of leisure when we can step back from our activity and consider what we have done and why we have done it, those interludes when dream and desire are not simply indulged but transformed. 

Hers’ first film Charell (2006), made after he graduated from La Fémis in 2004, conjures up a characteristic atmosphere of floating, blue-hour reverie, though its overall tone is more atypical. Opening with a meeting between two men (Jean-Michel Fête and Marc Barbé) after some 20 years, it maintains a sinister undertone that has less to do with Hers than with Patrick Modiano, whose 1982 novel De si braves garçons loosely inspired the film. Still, Charell establishes at least two notable aspects of Hers’ cinema. The first is an affinity with a less-heralded tradition of French cinema: the Diagonale group of directors, led by Paul Vecchiali, represented here by the sight of Marie-Claude Treilhou’s Simone Barbès ou la vertu (1980) on a television in the background. The second is a precise attention to the geography of Paris—in this case, the 16th arrondissement, proximal to the Bois de Boulogne.

This latter aspect is what led Luc Moullet, an early champion of Hers, to describe his oeuvre as a “local cinema.” Indeed, Hers’ second film, Primrose Hill (2007), is on one level a roving map of the Saint-Cloud commune in the western suburbs of Paris, charting the itineraries of a group of four bandmates over a single day. The absence of a fifth band member, Sylvia, hangs over the film, as we gradually learn about her through intermittent voiceover about a summer spent in Primrose Hill. Across the film’s hour-long runtime, she becomes identified with the season itself, and the dream of her return becomes a dream of summer as well. 

During one of the group’s many conversations, Joëlle (Stéphanie Daub-Laurent) gently points out that Stéphane (Hubert Benhamdine) only ever talks about music. Somewhat flustered but unable to refute her, he responds, “We say a lot when we talk about music. If I mention North Marine Drive, try to see behind it.” This notion of seeing “behind” the surface—especially one of apparent dilettantism or snobbery—is an important one for Hers, whose romantic tendencies lead him to picture a world of desire lurking beneath the frustrations of waking reality. This is most clearly brought out when Stéphane visits Joëlle and the two have sex, in an encounter that features all manner of physically awkward interactions and infelicities. Most notably, when Joëlle puts on an album, Stéphane promptly gets up and selects something else. But these vexations soon dissolve into the erotic intensity of the scene, which is notable for unfolding in a locked-down frame, without a cut. For these ten or so minutes, we peer behind a waking realm of frustrated everyday concern and glimpse a world where reality and desire are one.

Such intensity of vision cannot last too long, however, and it is only natural that the scene gives way to the usual diurnal cycles. Primrose Hill moves from dawn to dusk, and, as if picking up on this, Hers’ follow-up Montparnasse (2009) observes the opposite movement. Split into three discrete chapters, it comprises a set of gliding walk-and-talks that chart the passage from dusk to dawn, proving, if nothing else, that Éric Rohmer’s 1948 polemic “For a Talking Cinema” has long since made its mark. As in Rohmer, the conversations often revolve around the characters’ self-conceptions, but the crucial difference is that Hers’ style complements rather than contrasts with their self-presentations. His romantic sensibility is not indulgent or helplessly naïve, but it does allow his characters a measure of repose, an interlude in which to reflect on their lives from beyond the concerns of the day.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their temporal unity, both Primrose Hill and Montparnasse convey the impression that our conventional notions of time are being suspended. In both films, the unending succession of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is broken, which allows Hers’ characters a perspective on things that they—and we—might not otherwise have had. Memory Lane (2010) nominally covers a longer period, but likewise blurs our usual experience of time. The film mainly follows a group of childhood friends who reunite one summer in the Hauts-de-Seine, where they grew up—though when we pick up with them, it is already the end of August. As its title suggests, the film occasionally plunges into the past, presenting key scenes from the group’s childhood; but it also pulls back from the action to relate fragments of a letter written from some time in the future, framing the entire film as a reminiscence. Memory Lane thus conveys three conventional dimensions of time: a past that is no longer, a future that is not yet, and a present that never quite seems to materialize. But in doing so, it also carries the feeling that these dimensions are largely unreal, and that only when we step outside of them can we truly gain a perspective on reality.

It should be clear by now that summer is Hers’ season. Like his contemporary Guillaume Brac, Hers favours the leisure afforded by this time of year, hence why his films often move, as in classic comedy, toward a romantic coupling. The difference, though, is that Hers’ films tend to involve a tragic movement as well as a comic one: Memory Lane obliquely deals with terminal illness and mental breakdown, while the middle chapter of Montparnasse is structured around a woman who has passed on. In Ce sentiment de l’été, the inciting incident is the sudden death of a young woman, Sasha (Stephanie Dehel), which leaves her partner Lawrence (Anders Danielsen Lie) adrift during a summer in Berlin. Leaping elliptically across two subsequent years without a change of season, the film relocates to Paris and then New York, following not only Lawrence, but also his former sister-in-law, Zoe (Judith Chemla), as they each carry on with their lives. The opening tragedy is never forgotten, and grief is never far from the surface. Still, the film’s movement to renewal arises not from a denial of time—a wish to return to the past, for instance—but from a greater harmony with it. The cycles of decay, death, and rebirth, of autumn, winter, and spring, all become enfolded into a summer without end.

This theme of tragedy not avoided but contained gains full expression in Amanda (2018), Hers’ finest film to date. Like Mia Hansen-Løve’s Le père de mes enfants (2009), it is a Parisian drama that opens with a whirl of frenetic activity, following 24-year-old David (Vincent Lacoste) as he juggles a number of odd jobs while still making time for his elder sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) and her seven-year-old daughter, Amanda (Isaure Multrier). And like that earlier film, it then arrests that motion with an abrupt traumatic turn that reveals the past as prologue. Characteristically late to a picnic in a park, David arrives to the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the incongruity of the carnage and the placid greenery conveyed in a few quick shots. Later, we see him at his sister’s apartment with Amanda asleep in the next room. When she wakes, he will tell her that her mother is dead. The summer has only begun.

Like Hansen-Løve, Hers is an attentive observer of human behaviour, and Amanda is filled with numerous interactions that risk but never succumb to sentimentality. Shot in Paris’ 11th and 12th arrondissements, where the 2015 attacks took place, the film crystallizes Hers’ attention to place and geography, and, in particular, those areas where city and nature meet, which here become imprinted by the characters’ grief. Most notably, perhaps, Amanda exemplifies the dialectic between work and leisure which one finds throughout Hers’ oeuvre, harmonizing it not just with the demands of the narrative, but also with his recurring focus on generational divides. In Amanda and David’s relationship, we see the daily drudgery of work and its incessant demands sharply contrasted with the free play of childhood. 

As one might expect from Hers, this eventually resolves in favour of the latter. We see this not just in the vacation that David and Amanda eventually take to London with Wimbledon tickets that his sister had bought, but also in the trip he takes to the countryside to visit Lena (Stacy Martin), whom he had been seeing before the attacks put their relationship on hold. But alongside this picture of youth in bloom, Hers puts as much or even more emphasis on the reintegration of an older generation: David and Amanda’s trip also sees their tentative rapprochement with Alison (Greta Scacchi), David’s long-estranged mother, who had left for her native London when he was four. Amanda thus culminates with a kind of double resolution such as one finds in Shakespeare’s great final romances (a character in Memory Lane mentions The Tempest, but a better comparison here might be The Winter’s Tale): there is a vision of youth forming the centre of a renewed social life, and of an older generation restored, however tentatively, to their former lives.

It’s worth noting here that despite taking on a subject as charged as the 2015 attacks, Hers maintains his focus on the family unit and its primary concerns. The realities of exploitation, racism, and xenophobia are all present, but marginal; his films evidently do not communicate a course of direct practical action. What Hers does convey are the limitations of a social program that makes no room for the unfettered creative activity we associate with art. In David especially, we see how this can lead to a kind of compulsive, mechanical action, an impulse to press on to some unquestioned end that lies always in the future. The implication is that genuine change necessitates a transformation of desire, and that this happens not at the level of society, but at that of the individual. Ultimately, Hers implies that political concerns should not sweep up individual action, but that individual concerns should flow out to political action.

In Les passagers de la nuit, this principle is even more directly elaborated upon. The film’s prologue takes place in Paris on May 10, 1981, the night of François Mitterrand’s historic election. But this collective sense of political hope, conveyed by images of people celebrating in the streets, is immediately set against a rather different image: that of a young teenage girl, Talulah (Noée Abita), alone in a Metro station, followed by a precise recreation of a shot from Georges Franju’s La première nuit (1958), in which a child’s silhouette is set against a subway map, its lights glimmering with a sense of adventure and possibility. The film then jumps to 1984, where we are introduced to Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenage children, Judith (Megan Northam) and Matthias (Quito Rayon-Richter). Talulah enters their lives shortly after going on a nightly radio program hosted by Vanda Dorval (Emmanuelle Béart) at La Maison de la Radio, where Elisabeth works. As is Hers’ wont, Elisabeth’s family unit, now expanded to include Talulah, remains his focus in all that follows. The most we get of the wider political world are snatches of conversation about leftist protests that Judith attends, and a scene of Elisabeth and her children meeting up after casting their ballots for another election in 1988.

Les passagers is Hers’ first period piece, and, perhaps not coincidentally, his most openly cinephilic film. Apart from the opening reference to Franju, it incorporates footage from a great number of movies, most of them having some explicit connection to the word “night.” Soon after Talulah starts living with the family, she, Matthias, and Judith sneak into a movie theatre to see Éric Rohmer’s Les nuits de la pleine lune (1984) after being shut out of Alan Parker’s Birdy (1984); later, when Talulah and Matthias go out for an evening by the Seine, we get oblique recreations of Bresson’s Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1971). In many cases, the films being referenced don’t serve any diegetic function—their footage is cut in almost subliminally, as with subway shots from Claire Denis’ Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990) and a sensuous track along the Seine from Marguerite Duras’ Le navire Night (1979).

The most obvious function of these images from other films—Hers’ archive is entirely cinephilic—is to provide glimpses of times and places that are no longer, and which initially contrast with the fictional world Hers is building up. But the use of such footage, signalled via changing aspect ratios, gradually shifts over the course of the film, becoming less about locating Les passagers within a particular period than about activating our artistic memory: an imaginative universe constructed in the darkness of the cinema. The world of Les passagers, so sharply distinguished with the archival footage at the start, practically merges with it by the end: Hers presents a closing scene of Elisabeth and her family relaxing on a sloping hill in the “period” aspect ratio. Art and life interpenetrate; the real and ideal have become one.

Toward the end of the film, Elisabeth gives each of her children a gift: to Judith, a fertility goddess statue, which her husband had bought her when she was pregnant; to Matthias, her own journal, which she says got her through the most difficult times following her marital separation. Clearly, these objects do not serve the original purpose they once had, but it is precisely this lack of a direct practical end which gives them the imaginative power we associate with art—the kind of beauty that Kant once formulated as “purposiveness without purpose.” The arts, Plato says, are a dream for awakened minds. It is something of this waking dream that Hers’ films offer us: an image of nightly desire expanding into the world of daily concern, a festive vision of life as perpetual renewal, where it is summer no matter what the season.

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