Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival, Valérie Massadian’s second feature length film is a patient revelation. In stark contrast to the socially and politically conscious films produced in Europe, Milla — a quiet story about a 17-year-old mother making her way in the world — finds a deeper sensibility in both aspects without trying so desperately hard to be significant. Full of feeling without sentimentality, politics without propaganda, and a social realism which is expanded by its narrow scope, Milla is a refreshing marriage of realism and gentle formalism which allows for pregnant meaning.
Driving aimlessly along the rocky, windswept coast of northern France, teenage couple Milla (Séverine Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel) take shelter in an abandoned home in a small town, ready to build their life together. The two of them continue in the haphazard way of young lovers who are beginning to slip off the margins of society: without jobs, they casually steal food, and — more often than not — they feel like children playing at adulthood, albeit in a conscious manner, as if they’re not yet willing to let their freewheeling innocence slip through their fingers. They’re not irresponsible — Leo constantly searches for jobs to no avail, each requiring a certificate or experience which he doesn’t have, and in the meantime, Milla salvages curtains and Leo places cardboard over broken windows, slowly building up their home — merely unsure and unaccustomed to their new life. Massadian never judges or imposes her camera upon them, precise as the direction may be, because she is simply filming people being people without artifice. To call it authentic would be to reduce it to an effect, or to ignore the care which the film has for the voice of Milla as a person and not simply as a character.
Milla is more preoccupied with being and space, in an ontological sense, than it is with time. Massadian’s mise-en-scène is fully immersed in the immediacy of modern life, while retaining an inkling of the dream state induced by the passage of idle days and weeks. And so, it comes to pass that Milla is pregnant, a new life present from one moment to the next, the immanence of being not an interruption of their lives, simply another phase. Leo finds a job working on a freighter working long shifts, which supports the family, but also allows a rift, for the first instance, in his and Milla’s shared time together. Eventually this rift widens to a gulf, as an accident leaves Milla and her unborn child alone.
The narrative shift mid-film is surprising in the moment, but allows Massadian to upend any remaining expectations and jolt the audience out of complacency. A pregnant Milla now supports herself working as a maid in a hotel — she’s barely competent, not for lack of effort, but from her own youthful inexperience. The film allows her to fumble while turning over beds, to take long periods of time to read the instructions regarding certain cleaning supplies, and to exist through this new phase of her life.
The second half of the film reframes the memory of Milla’s time with Leo through a halcyon lens, rewriting the past as a nostalgic daydream. Each scene is an exercise in stillness and patience, with Milla’s acute realization of her own transience within these moments, and time becomes an afterthought or a wistful memory. The film misses Leo due to a change in its dynamic for a few beats, but it soon becomes apparent how it is only within small moments of time in which Milla (and with her, the audience) remembers his presence: the film is now firmly rooted in Milla, and her infant son Ethan. In the midst of raising him, Milla is raised up, not on a pedestal, but by virtue of being seen and not forgotten, for the dignity of herself as a woman and as a mother and as a person with hopes and dreams beyond her current situation; the film is awash in an unsentimentalized love of the poor and the lives of those brushed aside.
Crucial to Massadian’s approach is that the film is never dour and rarely bleak. To the contrary, it’s often playful, vibrant and finds humor in the serendipitous nature of life. A cat repeatedly jumps into a refrigerator, an impromptu dance party springs to life, and there’s a simple delight in the occasional echoes of Milla and Leo’s relationship in Milla and Ethan’s. She’ll repeat a phrase to Ethan she would say to Leo, or paint their nails the same color of polish, or laugh the same way. Milla never pities its subjects; it is more concerned with widening its gaze to account for the fullness of their lives.
Although the well worn label of “humanist” may have lost its meaning by now, Milla truly lives up to the mantle, as it is ultimately concerned with the fortitude and ability of a young woman to create a space of her own in the world. The film tenderly observes the invisible, marginalized corners of society, as Massadian’s instinct for the natural rhythms of Milla’s life, combined with a strong sense of the external, objective rhythms imposed upon it, allow Milla room to create its own space in the cinema of 2017. It is radical simply for revealing the voice and physical presence of Milla herself.
Josh Hamm (@ajoshhamm) is a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. He has contributed to MUBI’s Notebook, The Film Stage, Movie Mezzanine and Cut Print Film.