Realised by the non-professional actor Séverine Jonckeere, Milla is said to be seventeen in the film’s press notes. But without that information her age is hard to pinpoint. Her face flickers between gauche, baby-faced youth and the weariness of an older waitress on a smoke break, wondering where it all went wrong.

This indeterminacy writ upon Jonckeere’s face speaks to the liminal quality of Valérie Massadian’s cinema, which constantly switches modes, eludes easy labels. Also, the transitional stages of adolescence – what she’s called “hinge ages” – that her films consistently plumb. Her debut feature, Nana (2011), follows a four year-old girl, pre-socialisation, while her second, Milla (2017), crafts a fictive experience of teenage motherhood. (A future film featuring a number of kids aged between 11-13 is planned to centre the triptych.)

Although these portraits use documentary techniques, their observations are anything but detached. “To me, filming is dancing with the other person,” Massadian said at Locarno,1 where Milla premiered; a fitting description for a film that elides the corporeal and the spiritual, that so tenderly sweeps its protagonist into its arms.

Massadian and Jonckeere met when the filmmaker was casting for young mothers in the economically depressed north of France, having previously distributed flyers around the streets of Cherbourg and scouted women’s shelters without success. Our eyes are drawn immediately to Jonckeere’s peroxide locks – but I can’t help but wonder if the first thing Massadian noticed was her laugh, which is also the first clear sound we hear: Milla sleeps with her boyfriend in a tired old car; on waking she snorts playfully, and laughing, pulls the sheet over their heads.

Milla’s is the sort of light and musical laugh that makes others in a room laugh too. It charms, teases, and it also protects. Her laughter is thrown up as a blatant shield, a learned recourse, honed over many years, for when life appears to offer no other options. Amid the film’s natural soundtrack of birdsong and crashing waves, her laughter accompanies almost every scene, becoming its most constant note. In this way, intimacy is swiftly established; the film’s affection for Milla is palpable and contagious.

Balancing this affection, Massadian uses a camera with a fastidious attention reminiscent of Pedro Costa (thanked in the credits of Nana) that imbues its subjects with cool grace. Also a still photographer, Massadian shares with Costa an aesthetic sensibility defined by a staunch ethics of care for those it depicts. This manifests through long takes; mostly static yet painterly framing; a fondness for natural light and unscripted, collaborative shoots; and a fine sensitivity towards material detail (or what Costa calls “the sensuality of pure information”, found in images that function like anthropological reports).

At times, this matter-of-fact presentation of information also evokes the slippery, between-categories cinema of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel – part of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard – trained ethnographers who’ve ditched the field’s traditional imposition of verbal framing and pedagogy for a more open-ended, sensual approach. In some of the only scenes in Massadian’s film to leave Milla’s side, her boyfriend Léo (actor and critic Luc Chessel) finds work on a fishing boat. The parallels between the visceral, estranging footage of fishermen labouring here and in Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s Leviathan (2012) are so striking as to suggest homage (the SEL directors, too, are thanked in the credits). Gulls descend on the vessel and the sea churns. It’s as if the spectre of mortal danger that pervades the latter film – shot on GoPros strapped to the fishermen’s bodies – has become narrative putty for Milla.

And so even within the space of fiction, Milla never retreats from actuality. Its scrupulous eye latches upon the specificity of lived experience, emphasising the indefinite yet concrete environments its bodies inhabit. Neither romanticising nor downplaying poverty, shots focus intensely upon domestic surfaces and objects of neglect: a junk-littered yard; flimsy blankets; mould blooming across wallpaper; a broken window hinge that bangs against its frame in the wind; and that garish, black and neon-striped hotel carpet.

Despite this patient observation, any assertions of authenticity – or of an exaggerated belief in cinema’s capacity, or right, to fully comprehend its subjects – are held in check by the oneiric, fabulist spaces Massadian constructs. The film’s form mirrors Jonckeere’s face as it undercuts the grit of realism with the innocent glow of a dream. One such rupture occurs twenty minutes in, when Léo stands, shirtless, inside the house where they’re squatting. The room is dark, hued a smouldering burgundy by a sheet that has been hung over a broken window – both to block the wind gusting from the sea and to hide the teenage lovers from the world. In this cloistered space, he recites a two-minute monologue direct to camera – a burst of language amongst the spare dialogue – that reads more like a carefully penned love letter than unmediated stream of consciousness.

You, crazy girl, you fall down and get back up laughing, but your laughter is a spit in the world’s face. Nasty laugh Milla, beautiful Milla. You, when the beast takes over, and come your ‘I don’t care, fuck off, I’d like to see you in my shoes.’ I read a sentence that was like you when you don’t speak: ‘I’m tired of the pretty. I’m tired of intimacy. I ride on storms and I’ll drown with no one to save me.’ No Milla, you won’t drown, you float.

Whose words are these? Léo is speaking, sure, but the perspective anchoring the speech suggests it has come directly from Massadian, as if she’s feeding him lines from a manifesto for the vulnerable women her cinema embraces. “I want to dance with all these girls that are unsure about themselves, who are super strong but super fragile,” she continued, “I was there, but I have strength and some power, and I want to give it back.”2

Enacting this desire, the shot that follows Leo’s speech is of the sleeping couple entwined in bed: Leo’s head rests on her shoulder, his arm stretches across her torso with his hand on her hip, while her hand encircles his wrist. Massadian’s sympathy then takes full fantastic form when she appears in the film, playing a maid at the rundown hotel where Milla finds work after Léo’s death. The friendship between the two women is limned through a gentle choreography of glances, smiles, and playful touches.

If dance is, for Massadian, the apotheosis of this care, then the one moment where literal dancing takes place bears the immense weight of symbolic meaning this entails. A cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Add it Up” plays and Léo gyrates loose-limbed and lovable around their makeshift bedroom and on top of the bed, simply to make his girlfriend laugh. In Milla, such gestures are invested with more gravity, given more screen time, than the dramatic events of life and death.

We hear the song play on two more occasions: the second time in a hallucinatory sequence in which the soon-to-be single mother enters a room in the hotel and sees the band Ghost Dance rehearsing, their phantom performance loaded – for Milla, and us – with the bittersweet memory of the song’s previous iteration; and finally, when Milla listens on her headphones, taking a private moment while her son Ethan is sleeping, in their new home. Through an economy of visual and aural narration, each version of the song signals Milla’s adjustment to shifting circumstances and residences.

Coming together inside such spaces, Massadian’s film is an assemblage of such activities banal and revelatory. Its elliptical storytelling eschews melodramatic bursts. Instead, the pacing is steady, deliberate, instinctive; building through rituals and haunting echoes that, when placed together, guide the quotidian struggles of a young life into the steps of a dance. “No, Mum is tired”, is our heroine’s last line, addressing her son Ethan, refusing to get out of bed just yet. But it’s no admission of defeat. Rather, it evokes the sweaty sheen of resilient dignity that accumulates over the course of the film, as our unremarkably exhausted Milla is unfussily haloed, made radiant.

Endnotes:

  1. Matt Turner, “People Should Be Taken Care Of: Valérie Massadian Discusses Milla, Mubi Notebook, 28 August 2017.
  2. Ibid.

About The Author

Annabel Brady-Brown is a founding editor of Fireflies, film editor of The Big Issue, and a commissioning editor at The Lifted Brow.