Your Laughter is Spit in the World’s Face: Milla (2017) and Valérie Massadian

by Ruairí McCann

The idiosyncrasy of Valérie Massadian’s debut feature, Nana (2011), about a little girl (Kelyna ‘Nana’ Lecomte) living with her mother (Marie Delmas) in the Norman countryside, is baked into the construction of every frame. Handling the double question: who is this film’s set of eyes, and how does it string together this girl’s life?, with a fluid and live approach.

On first viewing, I found a film that wasn’t nudging me towards the points of judgment and consternation that other films, alike in subject matter, usually train their audience to home in on. The child’s wellbeing and development didn’t seem to the prime preoccupation, at least not in a conventional sense. And what exactly was going on with her mother? There would be no straightforward answer given. One follow-up viewing later and I found myself more acclimated to what it was actually doing, as opposed to just avoiding. 

It is a film that operates at a distance while at one at the same time, immersing into the vivid perspective of its four-year-old fulcrum. Her ruthlessly practical, immediate and yet imaginative experience of life and the world is emphasized by a myriad of general and specific choices. From keeping the camera low to the ground, around Nana’s eyeline, to the process, prevalent from conception straight through to editing of filleting out adult explication, concerns and morality from the narrative. 

The scenes where Nana roots through some neighbouring woods, would revive the earliest inklings of my consciousness. Propelling me back to raking through and exposing memories from when I was only a few years old. Like Nana, I grew up in the country, and my memories of traipsing through fields and coming across a forest are, in hindsight, also not easily comprehensible. The woods were distinct from my home and my parents and so an alien purlieu. Uncanny but also enticing enough to venture into and explore, like Nana does in the film. 

It is this aim, to capture what with the deficit of adulthood becomes a strange, even alienating, frame of reference, that I am willing to wager most other filmmakers would avoid like the plague, intentionally or not. They would shoot and cut the same spaces as the grown-ups they are. How they see not only trees, but eating, play, life and death, or else they would romanticise, extensively editing this unsentimental and freshly conscious being they have placed before the lens. Massadian is just one figure bobbing away in a contemporary art cinema that is a sea chocked full of filmmakers using what is, at least in theory, a similar set of styles and subjects, of ‘observational’ and ‘realist’ depictions of impoverished or otherwise troubled childhoods. Yet she sticks out, because her films take in next-to-nothing from widely accepted, ideologically approved rules to depicting this garden-variety but infinitely deep and thorny genre of the bildungsroman.

Nana (2011)

Instead of offering closeted conservative condemnation, or liberal handwringing and outsized guilt, Massadian has been making a cinema of the ‘animal’ intensities and lucidity of childhood and, with her latest film, Milla (2017), the often debilitating ‘growing pains’ of young adulthood. This film, like her last, was built over years in collaboration with its star, as nigh-on indivisible from her character, and moves in concert with her own point of view, her actors’ and their characters’, to such a complex extent, that the question that critics often pose when faced with an object, ‘what is the point of view’—which they often answer with a possible oversimplification (the filmmaker’s) or  self-absorption (their own)—becomes a moot point. Massadian’s films explode that question in a way that simultaneously makes it unavoidable, the subtext, and also redundant. Both Nana and Milla, but especially the latter, are ultimately not just forays into aesthetic-metaphysics but dramas that hit incredibly hard and aim and successfully reach for a poetic transcendence.

Milla begins with an image both hard-nosed and romantic. Two lovers asleep, curled up together in what looks like a mist but with one cut is revealed to be the fogged-up windshield of a parked car. They are Leo (Luc Chessel) and Milla (Séverine Jonckeere), teenage down-n-outs living in a town on the Normandy coast, where they quickly take themselves off the streets and into a squat. It is a wreck but, bit by bit, they begin to clean it up and turn it into a home. 

The first movement is structured around this act of homemaking, their general routine of codependence  and other fumblingly tender moments and expressions of love. They tease and rub each other the wrong way, but also caress and care for each other. Their bond is strong and nourishing, though it has both its inner tensions as well as stresses coming in from the outside. It is then a naturally dramatic and rich rigging, without the need for the cold imposition of a dominating, artificial viewpoint. 

This is not to say the plain hardship of their lives is ever denied, or the larger social framework in which it is allowed to persist, excised. Rather the former is apparent in the obstacles they face, in finding shelter, food, work, and the latter is allowed to rise to the fore through the characters’ own interactions and dialogues—Leo reading through a newspaper’s job listings, “I can eat, at least I don’t need a degree for that”, or later during a casual conversation with a grocer, Milla talks about the difficulty of living on welfare.

Meanwhile, there is no attempt to blanket-psychologise their situation by delving into their upbringing—in fact, we get next to nothing about their background, how they met or got to be in this position. There is no emotional heavy lifting done by the score nor is there an intervention from a clearly designated and reductive audience surrogate good Samaritan. In fact, Massadian actively uses ellipsis and other methods to further dissuade any over-determination. The first of several significant breaks in the film’s hitherto ruthlessly rooted in reality, present tense comes with Leo professing his love for Milla in a violently poetic, direct to camera address, captured in extreme close-up. And in one incredible cut, Milla goes from having a flat belly to being heavily pregnant. Dealing with this oncoming baby; the shock of it, labouring over what to do and responsibility, could have been the dramatic meat and the core of some sociological import. Instead, like the need to find shelter, to get food and money, it is treated like another fact to be dealt with and to move on from. 

The ellipses and steering away from obvious narrative and structuring traps are not only instances of the film’s commitment to these characters and the drawn limits of Massadian’s own perspective. They surface cinematographically too, and in the mise-en-scène. The former is worked out by Massadian in collaboration with her son Mel, their compositions giving the film an alien-classical beauty: an emphasis on the whole body and a respectful simplicity, which could be likened to the style of Chaplin or Straub-Huillet, three major influences noted by Massadian herself. Still, the film possesses an often subtle and yet always expressive formalist sense of colour, particularly in relation to whites and reds, that could contend with the eye of Catherine Breillat. The influence of the rigorously subjective docu-fictions of Marguerite Duras are present as well, and openly referenced in a scene where Milla is reading L’Amant de la Chine du Nord (1991). Duras’ reworking, from a different viewpoint, of her own autobiographical novel, L’Amant (1984). 

Milla (2017)

The camera operates from a fixed point and range; the film’s moral range and centre. It never uproots itself outside of a cut, staying either static or slowly panning. And it is not as if there are no overhead angles, long shots, and close-ups but they are rare and not taken lightly. Instead, she mostly commits to a literal and ethical middle-ground; of medium shots and medium close-ups which are close enough to see those on-screen as humans, not insects, but not too close to be invasive, dispelling their intimacy or turning flesh into abstraction. 

And then everything changes. Roughly halfway through, in an unexpected turn of events, Milla is left alone, baby still on the way. Both Massadian and Milla acknowledge what a wrenching loss this absence is, how it radically unmoors her life, and therefore the film, by plunging the squat and frame into nearly total darkness. Leaving visible a prostrate Milla and, for a moment, Leo in one last, short reprise of the previously integral motif of the two lovers together, as Milla heartbreakingly wallows in the echoing memory of his touch. 

A film that was about two lovers modulates into a film about a girl becoming a woman. About how life often slips devastatingly out of control and yet can also prevail, not in an exceptionalist’s sense but in a powerfully practical yet poetic way. New opportunities and meaning can be found, both coloured by, while departed from, what life used to entail. Initially it looks grim for Milla, grieving, on her own. She gets a job as a cleaner at a hotel whose anonymous and chintz surfaces strike an especially cold and stifling contrast to the degraded but hand-made surroundings of the squat, as visualized through the soft and natural light of the love that had defined it. 

It’s not just a shit job though, for her loneliness is soon alleviated. She forms a surrogate mother-daughter relationship with her supervisor, played by Massadian herself. The decision to step in front of the lens from behind, had been considered previously with Nana. She would have played the mother, but for various reasons, changed her mind and casted someone else. Her on-screen presence serves divers’ purpose and inclinations. It goes part in parcel with a belief in filmmaking which melds off-screen relations and events with those on-screen. Massadian’s actual, quasi- maternal fondness for Jonckeere, the actor, gets off-loaded onto her character’s tenderness and protectiveness over Milla—as emphasized during a scene in the supervisor’s apartment, when camera turns away from the two of them together to linger over photographs of Valérie and Mel. It also demonstrates a refusal to take the potential easy way. Instead of remaining the filmmaking as a distant observer and arbiter, Massadian puts her body on-screen, implicating herself and her own feelings towards this actor and character, as she fundamentally shifts the tone and trajectory of the film and Milla as their close friendship helps the younger woman to rebuild her emotional resource. It allows her to feel loved again, on different, more self-sufficient grounds, but in a fashion that doesn’t seem pre-ordained in a distant pre-production, but based in the actual relationship between actor and director as then dramatized and incorporated into the diegesis. 

This change in mindset is reflected in the birth of the baby (Ethan Jonckeere) and the final movement are heralded not with the pain and viscera of labour but an extreme close-up of Ethan as a newborn suckling at his mother’s breast.

Top [L to R]: Milla and Leo, Milla and Valérie
Bottom: Milla and Ethan

Massadian and her work stands in an interesting light when it comes to its history and relationship with questions about the ethics of the image, of depicting the disenfranchised and what exactly constitutes realism in art. Before venturing into cinema, she led a tearaway life, filled with hard work. Her parents were often absent, so it was a childhood saddled with an unusual degree of responsibility and a premature awareness that adults were ultimately not omniscient, caring protectors but people with their own flaws and foibles. She often ran from home and odd-jobbed, until eventually she decamped to Japan to work as a model, then on to the States, where she wrote copy and repaired bikes. It was in New York, working as a fashion designer and doing various gigs on other people’s movies, where she was brought into the sphere of photographer Nan Goldin, for whom she worked as an assistant for a time. It meant close contact with work and a mind that dealt seriously with the supposed divides between author and subject and art as a private thing and a public object. 

Valérie in the Taxi, Paris 2001 by Nan Goldin

Goldin has spoken about her work, specifically in the context of her breakout exhibition and book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985/6), as being concerned with ‘intimacy and autonomy’. Referring not only to the lives and dynamics she photographed but the deliberation in framing the bodies, therefore the personalities, of friends, family, lovers and herself. In her photographs, stylization and distance are not a cure or curse to ward off the bare honesty and intensity of everyday life. All these things co-exist and are closely linked. 

Though largely coincidental, it is intriguing to note that a year before Massadian premiered Nana, Goldin released her own study of childhood in the form of a photo book called Eden and After (2010). Like Nana, it does not emboss over but incorporates a child-like view. Fuelled by this same primordial frankness and imagination that runs right through her protégé’s images as well. 

In terms of her country’s own film history, Massadian falls either side of that demarcation known as the Nouvelle Vague. She has said herself has stated, in an interview with Senses of Cinema, that she feels a strong kinship with films the three Jeans, “Vigo, Grémillion and Renoir”, all of whom started in the 20s and whose films she found to be more clued in to the lives of, to quote historian Louis Chevalier,  “classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses”. To her sensibilities, they are more vital than the relatively “bourgeois” New Wave. This statement is similar to another filmmaker who came after the New Wave, and an even more vocal opponent, Maurice Pialat. His opposition came from a similar place, his attachment to the working classes vis-à-vis his admiration for another pre-1959 French filmmaker, Marcel Pagnol. 

Though there is a lifetime of differences between Massadian and Pialat’s approaches, personalities and many of their engrossments. BetweenMassadian’s formally fixed point versus Pialat’s wild and mobile kino-eye. Pialat also pours more of his own autobiography directly into the mould, along with wider social portraits . But there are key commonalities, namely identification with a working-class away from the cultural and filmmaking nucleus of Paris: with Massadian it’s her Armenian heritage and Normandy, for Pialat, summed up by the nickname, ‘Le Taureau de Auvergne’.

Most importantly there is the shared goal, of transplanting reality to screen, as unfettered as possible. To not implant some concrete, ‘this is it’ view of the people depicted or what they could supposedly represent, but to present life as ultimately unaccountable and untamed by the dictates of some overly manipulative, larger point of view. Non-fiction then, is integral for both filmmakers and their methods. Pialat’s first forays into filmmaking were a series of short documentaries. Following these, he seemed set on making documentary-like fiction  by practically neglecting pre-written material and encouraging conflict both on and off-screen. Massadian’s mix is an even greater double down on non-fiction—by also throwing the script away and then building her films with Nana and Séverine, respectively, so that they stick relatively close to their lives as they have actually lived it—before proceeding to shape the footage into something undeniably fictive in the editing. She has her own, very tactile, analogy for the whole process. 

“The best fiction is building from … it’s like you have a rock, and then in this rock you [makes the sound of chipping at rock], and that’s what fiction is. But you have the rock, which is reality. The more real it is the more I can build fiction.”

The relationship between Milla and Leo is a construction—they were not a couple and Chessel, as a film critic who had acted previously, is no stranger to the filmmaking process—and yet with the film’s final movement and its pairing of Milla and Ethan, actual mother and son, who through the fiction has become ‘their’ son, that original dynamic becomes more real in relief. Or to put it another way, the relationship between this mother and her child is made more poignant by the knowledge of the hardship, mistakes, and work, as enacted in fiction, that has been required of Milla to get to this point where the two of them can live together. 

Fiction and documentary here are co-dependent, and reflective of the general need to turn the events and untrammelled order of our lives, into narrative, metaphor and analogy. To make sense and meaning, to learn how to live with ourselves and each other. It is why the film’s, perhaps, ultimate moment of fiction and reality as one, is the sight of Leo’s ghost sitting, contented, watching over Ethan as he plays with his blocks. It recalls another life-affirming, no-nonsense elegy, where the relationship to realism and fiction is equally self-aware and productive; a line from Phil Elverum’s song “Distortion”. 

“I looked around the room and asked "Are you here?"
And you weren't, and you are not here.
I sing to you though.”

Ruairí McCann is a writer, musician and film critic from County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland and who is currently based in Belfast. He sits on the boards of the Spilt Milk Festival and Sligo Film Society and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Mubi’s Notebook and Screen Slate. [Twitter]

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