Valérie Massadian’s first feature Nana (2011) revolves around three instances of death. In the first a pig is circled by a farmer, shot, then laid out and bled. “Pig,” says one small child, watching the scene. “It’s going to be dead, your pig,” says another. The close-up of russet-red blood gushing from the animal’s throat has led some to read the scene as gruesome. We think of chops as coming from the freezer, flesh and bodily warmth and smell transmigrated to plastic, sterile sensory distance. Yet we can recognise in Massadian’s treatment of death a subtle ambivalence, a keen sensitivity to pain, but also to human habits and needs.

Massadian focuses on the four year-old girl, Nana (Kelyna Lecomte). In a pale-pink parka and matching galoshes, the rosy-cheeked Nana gets up to take a better look at the carcass. “On the boots, is it blood or paint?” she asks. The farmers comment, “Isn’t life wonderful like this? Isn’t it beautiful?” Nana stares by her grandfather’s side, neither frightened nor squeamish.

Like a natural philosopher, the inquisitive and gentle Nana learns things by experiencing them first-hand, establishing an empirical basis. “Mustn’t squash the dandelions,” she says, walking across a clearing with her grandfather (Alain Sabras). Their walk is filmed in a wide shot, with cows grazing to the right and a tree, crooked and partly toppled, to the left. These two natural forms, one alive and one dead, frame the central grandfather-and-child figures. As Nana falls, her grandfather reassures her, “It’s nothing.” Nana rubs moss on her hands, to disguise her human scent, and sets up a rabbit trap. The scene shifts from wide-eyed innocence and tenderness to the acceptance of killing, but for Nana there is no contradiction. The same hands that pick her up gently when she falls also snap the rabbit trap shut.

The question why Nana’s father is absent hovers over the film. Nana’s mother (Marie Delmas) is quite young and lives alone. Massadian’s camera doesn’t contextualise her solitude, though it does drop clues. The first time we see Nana’s mother, she wears a mini-skirt and a light-burgundy sports jacket, cutting a nearly teenage figure. She walks briskly, automatically, as if propelled by anger. She hastily writes a note and leaves it tucked on a car’s windscreen, “The fence isn’t finished. Please get it done. Your daughter.” In the background, men pick up piglets from a metal cart. They open the animals’ snouts; there’s a sound, a clip, though we don’t see the exact shape of the instrument. An unsettling alliteration forms between an earlier shot — of Nana observing the piglets with her grandfather in the pen, which he refers to as a “prison” — to now her young mother walking away, as the piglets squeal.

The protective qualities that Nana experiences with her grandfather clash with the anger, the red scribble, of her mother’s written demand. The request is prosaic — we see the unfinished fence in the following sequence — but the prison-fence alliteration leaves an impression of a young woman who wants to be free and yet relies on others.

Massadian’s cinematic language is one of repetition and subtle variance, gradations of light, emotion, setting, which together corroborate the inevitability of natural laws. Her method echoes what André Bazin argues in his essay, “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson”.1 The Bressonian reliance on non-actors brings to the screen their liveliness, in a belief that physiognomy is more than a picturesque procession of types — it is, in fact, the very essence of film.

The film maps out three distinct realms, leading us from the farmhouse to Nana’s house and back. Thus Nana’s first walk with her grandfather repeats, in a new variance. Massadian frames the clearing with the same open shot, two figures — mother and daughter — in the middle and walking away, while the camera remains static. This time Nana isn’t supported by an adult. She carries her mother’s shopping and is relieved of the burden only when she complains it’s too heavy. In another shot, as they sink into soft loamy earth and tall grass, Nana again carries the oversized plastic bag.

As the two settle into their domestic routine, Nana plays alone. Tonal inflections are faint and fleeting: from the dinner at which the mother is uncommunicative, absent-minded, downcast, as Nana repeatedly fails to cut her food with a knife; to the two gathering wood and playing together the next day, spitting streams of water on each other’s faces.

The third walk is really two walks split up. First, Nana’s mother, walking very fast, her slim figure in the burgundy jacket receding in the distance while the unfinished fence protrudes in the middle of the frame. Then Nana in her pink jacket and pink rucksack in the woods. The setting is quiet, peaceful, but this is also where Nana previously set traps with her grandfather. The echo, forest/trap, returns. Nana walking into the forest, at the edge of the frame, is her mother’s double.

In the film’s circular psychic space there are constant comings and goings. The image of Nana’s mother, walking again past the broken fence, resonates with all the other passes. So does Nana’s habituated reaction — she dresses up by herself and looks inside the fridge to find food. She plays alone again, though this time with a flicker of temper. “What a big fucking mess,” she says, seated on a sofa placed on the lawn outside her house. “I’m sick and tired of her crap.” If Nana’s phrase is directed at her absent mother, whose judgment does it reflect? Nana’s, her grandfather’s?

At one point, the camera detaches from the characters — cutting from Nana closing the door to her house as the sun sets to a night scene inside the pigpen. Both scenes are steeped in red light — first the natural sunlight and then the glaring, artificial red of the pigpen. The colour gives these two images such unity it strongly suggests an association between the two small shapes, Nana and piglet: Nana alone, motherless, while the piglets feed on their mother’s milk.

Unlike the pig’s death, amid squeaks and chatter, the human death is silent. It comes first as a premonition: Nana dreams of her mother’s elegant white hands and sees herself cuddled in her mother’s arms. She wakes alone and finds a temporary replacement — she frees a rabbit from a trap, brings it home to play with, then decides to burn it because she understands, subconsciously, that the animal is dead.

We don’t know when or how exactly Nana realises what has happened. The camera shows her in the woods and at home. Nana then fetches a blanket to protect her mother’s body, and brings with her the large tome, which includes Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, the story her mother has been reading to her. Nana drops the book, the only gesture of a farewell. Later, when Nana is picked up by her grandfather, and leaves her home and her mother’s possessions, the scene is silent again. So is Nana’s final walk through the clearing, the figures again a pair.

This final passage is one of the most evocative in contemporary French cinema. Its elusiveness, the way it mixes Nana’s cognition, her elf-like being, between the real and the imaginary, and the overlapping echoes of death — pig, rabbit, mother — are melancholy but understated. It doesn’t privilege grief, or dwell on it.

At the same time, the maternal scenes are exquisitely tender. The physical proximity of Nana to her mother is so great they seem like two children playing, or a single being. Perhaps this is why Nana’s dream has such power, as if Nana were re-experiencing the smell and softness of her mother’s flesh. The final image is an eerie tableau: the sprawl of the vibrant blanket over the mother’s pale body, with Nana standing over it. Nana’s stillness signals her awareness, but also the impossibility of knowing. It resists interpretation, just as the entire film has resisted it.

Nana walks back, to the farm, past the broken fence.

Endnotes:

  1. André Bazin, “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson” in What is Cinema?, Vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray, U of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2005.

About The Author

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and programmer based in São Paulo. Her articles on film and art appear in Artforum, Art in America, Film Comment, Frieze, Hyperallergic, Mubi, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound and The Village Voice. She is a founder of Lyssaria.com, acts as program advisor for Sheffield Doc/Fest, and serves on selection committees of It's All True International Documentary Film Festival and Festival Semana de Cinema in Brazil.