Monday, July 30, 2018

MILLA: Valérie Massadian's exploration of young womanhood opens at NYC's AFA

The movie opens on a shot of a young couple seemingly covered in something like gauze. But then, when the camera captures the two from another angle, we see that they have been asleep inside an automobile, the windows of which have fogged up by their breath. This is the first instance of how, in MILLA, the new film from Valérie Massadian (Nana), what we see and hear turn out to be something more and different from what we might expect. And yet the surprises in Milla are small and quiet, as is the movie itself. It's very slow, too. Those of you who prefer action films, take note.

Ms Massadian, shown at right, intends a study -- of a character (our young heroine, Milla) and of a class of people -- the less educated, wealthy and entitled -- that we are not used to seeing, let alone entering the lives of in any real depth, in mainstream movies. She has succeeded, too.

Though her movie begins slowly and may have you thinking, "Oh, my: another vérité look at the life of the lower class," do hold on. Milla proves something more because it does not take for granted that the life here is anything less than genuine, important and even positive -- though certainly difficult, yes.

Massadian does not cram on the crap, as do some would-be realist filmmakers. Milla's life has ups and downs, with one major loss midway, but she copes as best she can. And in the starring role, newcomer Severine Jonckeere (above and below) proves a lovely and very moving addition to the canon of near-real characters caught on film. A collection of small scenes caught at various times and in differing place, each of which makes its simple point, Milla quietly and slowly builds to something major.

Though the film is slow-paced and rigorous, once you take its characters on their own terms, just as the filmmaker has done, you watch, learn and grow along with them. The cinematography involves mostly interiors -- that car, the couple's squatter residence, a bar, hotel, vegetable stand, and eventual apartment for Milla and her son -- but the exteriors, including the sea and the fishing vessel on which Milla's boyfriend finally finds employment, are beautifully handled, as well, often in the kind of middle distance that allows us to feel for and appreciate the characters via their surroundings.

Milla is a tale of slow growth, change and acceptance: of what life throws at you, of motherhood, of responsibility. The sparse dialog seem reflective of the characters and their circumscribed lives. Once Milla's son Ethan arrives, after but a brief time with him as suckling infant, we see him as a young child. Ethan Jonckeere (below), who I presume is the actual son of the leading actress, is certainly one of the most adorable child actors you'll have seen: completely natural, never posing for the camera, and totally involved and engaged in life.

The filmmaker includes everything from a musical number to some lovely poetry, a shipwreck unseen but experienced via a dirge, loneliness and coping, and a cat ("You don't want me to pet you," Milla observes, "but you're not leaving." How cat-like). The momentary imagined return of the dead boyfriend, played with quiet grace and caring by Luc Chessel, once to comfort a grieving Milla and again to observe his sleeping son, is handled with the same finesse as the rest of this unusual movie.

Above all else, the film is cautiously hopeful. These days, that's quite a lot. From Grasshopper Film and running a lengthy 128 minutes, Milla opens this Friday, August 3, in New York City at Anthology Film Archives, and in Los Angeles on August 15 (only at 8pm) at the Acropolis Cinema. That seems to be it theatrically, but we shall hope that DVD and digital will soon be in the works.

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