Catching its titular protagonist in a moment of vulnerability and intimacy, Valérie Massadian’s Milla opens on a sun-dappled pair of teenage lovers waking in the backseat of a car. Though the film eschews a score in favor of the crashing of nearby waves and the chatter of birds, Milla’s triptych structure takes its cues as much from music as from conventional cinematic narration; each of its three phrases offer riffs on central themes of labor, intimacy, embodiment, and play, stirring new and unexpected resonances and echoes. Shirking context, scenes of rote physical labor strike a harmony with painterly framings of the seaside village where Milla (Severine Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel) make their home, building a steady rhythm from quotidian nuisances and pleasures, producing out of minutiae a gesture toward grace.
Milla, which had its world premiere in the “Filmmakers of the Present” section at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, follows its young protagonist across three periods of her life. Patient above all else and benefiting from Massadian’s background as a photographer, the camera favors long takes in the seeming conviction that endurance will be rewarded, that a static shot focused long enough on everyday phenomena will elevate the unremarkable to the level of the sublime. Massadian’s camera holds a particular reverence for Severine’s face, a curiously mutable beauty that toggles between plainness and the doughy, vulnerable saintliness of a Vermeer subject. If Milla appears susceptible, poised precariously on the threshold of adulthood and the periphery of society, she is also sturdy and resilient. In Massadian’s hands, Virginia Woolf’s preferred metaphor for realism, the “cotton wool of daily life,” is transformed into steel wool: enduring, substantial, and brimming with vitality.
Massadian’s is a patchwork aesthetic cobbled together from moments of stillness, narratively elliptical, and content to let its story sprout in the gaps between shots. The cruelty of the rocky landscape, and indifferent flex and flux of the sea form a moody backdrop to Milla and Leo’s play at domesticity, scored by the hypnotic undulation of waves crashing ashore. Milla was filmed in the same seaside town in which famed screenwriter Jacques Prévert and production designer Alexandre Trauner spent the final fifteen years of their lives. Their frequent collaborations with Marcel Carné in the years surrounding World War II, the founding examples of poetic realism, provide an instructive frame through which to read Massadian’s own examination of lyricism in the everyday. In one particularly striking tableau, Milla and Leo perch atop a fence in the graveyard where Prévert and Trauner lie buried, evoking elegiac undertones that reverberate throughout the film.
While Milla maintains a broadly poetic approach to narrative, the film nonetheless remains steadfastly rooted in a socially responsible realism, committed to the lived realities of marginal and precarious lives. Milla’s exclusive concentration on Milla and Leo as they build a sanctuary inside a derelict house belies the myriad of ways in which the outside world noses its way into their lives. Leo’s mockery of wanted ads in the newspaper, almost all of which require university degrees, even for unskilled labor, doesn’t quite succeed in masking an underlying bitterness. When Leo finally finds work trawling for fish, tragedy strikes. Left alone with a swelling pregnant belly and no safety net, Milla has little time to mourn before taking a housekeeping job at a hotel.
Milla makes no claim to documentary, but fashions a crust of fiction atop the lives of its central actors. Rarely without a cigarette or a sarcastic barb, Massadian plays a gruff, kind-hearted fellow maid who takes Milla under her wing. Massadian scouted at women’s shelters and papered supermarkets with flyers before meeting Severine, a teenage mother whose biological son Ethan portrays Milla’s toddler son. Massadian’s filmmaking praxis models art as the organic production of intimate relationships, whether between mother and son or actor and director. Milla doubtlessly benefits from Severine’s offscreen relationship with Ethan; the pair exudes a disarming affection that enriches an uncommonly nuanced portrayal of motherhood.
As evinced in her first feature film Nana (2011), which focused solely on a toddler’s interaction with the world around her, children are in some ways Massadian’s ideal subjects: too young to be self-conscious in front of a camera. Children such as Ethan naturally embody an unguarded state of being. Massadian’s patient, observational filmmaking has little need to cajole her subjects into operatic performances. As any caretaker knows, toddlers need little nudging to swing between numerous emotional registers during a single take.
The breezy authenticity of Massadian’s sensibility strikes an intuitive balance with her approach to rendering space and time. Loosely reminiscent of a fugue, each of Milla’s three movements elaborate on and deconstruct what came before, resignifying and recontextualizing objects, bodies, and sounds. The most overt repetition is the recurrence of the Violent Femmes song “Add It Up,” which sonically bridges the three sections and defines Milla’s emotional arc: first, as an anthem vibrating with the anxious lust of youth, performed by Leo as Milla dissolves into giggles; next, as a howl of frustration and alienation, sung by musicians in the hotel where Milla works; finally, as a melancholy meditation on a faraway past, accessible only in the vagaries of memory.
Surreal moments that nod toward the transcendental, though rare, are scattered throughout Milla. Leo’s body, presumably lost at sea, returns to cradle Milla as she grieves his loss and, years later, to watch over his son. Scenes double from one movement to the next, placing the past in persistent dialogue with the present. A scene of tenderness, in which Leo applies lacquer to Milla’s fingernails, echoes years later as Milla paints her squirming son’s nails. The rocky crags of the shoreline, replaced for a time with the antiseptic interior of a hotel, return in their austere beauty when Milla takes Ethan to visit the shore.
Milla’s meditation on the slipperiness of memory seeks not to devalue the everyday reality of its characters but to align itself more fully with their subjectivities. Endowing the otherwise routine dramas of daily life with substantive emotional heft, the film confers something like grace upon Milla, Leo, and Ethan. In a film-industrial landscape so marked by an endemic deficit of kindness, Milla makes a distinctly humanist argument for cinema as a product of intimacy, empathy, and generosity.
ERIN DELANEY works in film exhibition in New York.