Translated by Daniel Fairfax

For anyone who, upon watching Valérie Massadian’s Milla (2017), was moved or startled by the film, I wonder what should be written about it, what needs to be added. I like all the words spoken by those who come out of the screening room. Trembling words that the film welcomes, harsh words that the film allows, silences that the film inhabits. These viewers speak of life: their own, those of others, or Milla’s life. The fact is that this character, Milla, suddenly exists in their life. These things happen. Hence we should talk, here, about the things that happen, although they are difficult to say. They are also difficult to film, yet Milla does, and sometimes they can be difficult to live through, as Milla knows. I wanted to title this brief testimony The Last of Us: those words appear in the film on a T-shirt worn by Léo (the character whom, as they say, I embody). The T-shirt, given to use as a costume by a friend who knows a lot about the subject, is that of a famous video game of the same name, with a post-apocalyptic setting whose young heroes, Ellie and Joel, travel across a world in ruins in a desperate attempt at survival. Likewise, Milla and Léo are there, together or side by side, in the abandoned docklands of Cherbourg, at the beginning of a film that asks this question: how not to be alone in the world? On this matter, when it is paying a little attention, the cinema is indeed the last of us to hold out. The cinema, as we already know, is a woman, like every filmmaker is — and women are the last of us.

But to give a better idea of the almost three months of filming in the surrounds of Cherbourg and The Hague, between late 2015 and early 2016, and of the several months that Valérie spent alone on the editing, here is what Jean Epstein wrote in 1930 about his film Mor Vran, another sailing movie:

There is no inventing. I tried. Inventing is prohibited. For if the most laborious, prudent and lifelike elucubration, with all accepted conventions, can be satisfactorily represented by adroit symbols (actors, sets), it can never be applied without taking on the appearance of a mask, covering the people and objects that exist, and the countries that live.1

To take the side of the things that happen implies, for a filmmaker like Valérie, putting in place the difficult conditions for the suspension of invention. She has to make up what cannot be made up, by observing what happens within a given frame, within the frames she gives to her non-actors and non-technicians, as well as her non-viewers. For Milla does not ask for professional spectators any more than it uses professional actors — and its filming involved giving the sound, image and “scheduling” artisans who chose to take part in the project the freedom offered by the uncertainty of the journey and the indifference to those “accepted conventions” that Epstein abandoned one day at sea. These are not production secrets, held backstage and off-screen to create a stronger effect. In the cinema, these things can be heard and seen. It is their mise en place that takes the place of mise en scène: setting things up, so they can happen, rather than directing them.

In the same way, a kind of mise en jeu, a bringing of things into play, replaces the usual direction of actors in this film. “Notice that they do not play in the film, they play at the film, the same way that you and I used to play at war games,” as Epstein wrote about his islander actors in another film of his, L’Or des mers (1932).2 Playing at the film: in Nana (2011), and in her parallel short Ninouche (2011), Valérie Massadian filmed Kelyna Lecomte, a four year-old girl, who played, with us and for us, the terrible and joyous game of being alone in the world. In Milla, the actors are filmed like children, and the child is filmed like an actor (when Ethan, two and a half years old, enters the world of the film and totally overturns it). In his short treatise on indiscipline, Graine de crapule, Fernand Deligny3 gave these words of advice to educators: “Make them play. If you want to do your job, make them play, play, play.” In real life, Séverine Jonckeere, who in Milla plays out a story close to her own, wants to become an educator rather than an actor, having herself been brought up all around the place, maybe to give back what was given to her, for better or worse. Giving back: it is also what the film wants to do for Séverine, who gave her Milla to Milla — through both the finished film, a kind of justice done (and brought) to life, as well as the filming process, a real (and, I believe, precious) encounter. A film that does not make real things happen is not a film, just as a game that only pretends it is not a game: war games, as children know, are war.

Such a free course given to those who “play at the film” has the consequence that the real “direction of actors” is in the editing, which seeks out possible directions for the multiple pathways proposed within the frames, giving them a meaning in return (this is always true in the cinema, but not always as true as it is here). But this work of return, the meaning given to the things that happen, by accumulation, repetition and correspondences during the time of the film — all this also means work for the spectator. The non-critic André S. Labarthe, who recently died, once put it this way:

I have come to have the rather radical thought that the great filmmakers are those who put into place a dispositif [apparatus], that is, a model of coordinated forms that will allow the spectator to work. You see, the spectator is part of the film, he is no longer the recipient, he is one of its constitutive, inseparable cogwheels. One of them, the director, creates a dispositif. The other, the spectator, creates meaning. What happens when the director, through pride or a lack of brains, declares himself to be in control of the meaning? Well, he makes a film that has no need for a spectator. This is why I could repeat, over and over again, that a bad film is a film that has no need of me.4

We will only say that Milla has a great need for spectators — of whom it asks, in return, to become in their turn the non-actors and non-editors of the life that passes before them (or towards us) on the screen. This is why there are no “sentiments” in Milla, a radically unsentimental film, but only emotions and actions, and the secret relations between them, no matter how close or distant they may be, relations that remain to be found upon each viewing, for every spectator who wishes to play at the film.

For example, a young woman who, having seen Milla one evening in Moscow, spoke to me about the first two shots in the film, after the darkness of the opening sound. They show Milla and Léo waking up. In the first shot, we gaze upon them sleeping in a veiled, enigmatic image, as if seen through something — something that the second shot reveals to be the steamy windscreen of the car in which they spent the night. We are now inside a makeshift bedroom. For the young woman in Moscow, the whole film was there, in the relationship between a beautiful, mysterious image and the reality of a lived situation: in the conflict or the difficult but desirable harmony between them. Difficult, but desirable: only time can do anything about it — the time of the film, which is also the time of Milla’s life. The last shot also shows an awakening, extended in the darkness of the closing sound: a half-sleep inhabited, in the intervening time, by all the things that happen and which were not just a dream.

Endnotes:

  1. Jean Epstein, “L’Île” (1930), in Écrits sur le cinéma 1921-1953, vol. 1, Seghers, Paris, 1974, p. 206.
  2. Jean Epstein, “L’Or des Mers” (1930), op. cit., p. 223.
  3. Fernand Deligny (1913-1996) was a French writer, filmmaker and educator.
  4. Interviewed in Bertrand Keraël, “La Cinémathèque imaginaire d’André S. Labarthe”, La Cinémathèque Française, 2004.

About The Author

Luc Chessel works as a film critic for French newspaper Libération and occasionally as an actor. He played the part of Léo in Valerie Massadian’s film Milla.