The gulf between what you might assume it’s like to be young and beautiful, broke and free, and the actual reality of that gets marvelously exposed in the first two shots of Valérie Massadian’s patient, intimate Milla. First, we see teen lovers entwined in a haze, stirring from sleep in the woods, the languor suggestive of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and some sylvan Seventies soft-core. Massadian cuts to a new angle: Actually, they’re crammed into the back of a heap of a car with windows that have fogged over from their breathing.
For the next two hours, as it spools out its story, Milla honors both of those moods and modes. Most of Massadian’s shots are full single-take, static-camera scenes. Amid the post-industrial beauty and waste of coastal northern France, these teen lovers — the bottle-blonde Milla (Severine Jonckeere) and lanky, long-haired Leo (Luc Chessel) — move into a bare house, scrounge for food, make an exhilarating game out of stealing local produce. Their love thrives in the ruins, on a pile of blankets and sleeping bags on a tiled floor, and they treat each other with a winning tenderness. Scoring a bed frame becomes a reverie; lying together in natural light so dim we can’t quite make out their faces, they sing and laugh, the performances so naturalistic they seem observed rather than staged. Then, on occasion, Massadian offers up a theatrical flourish, like a full-length cover performance of the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” in a hotel suite. That song recurs throughout the film, a bleat of furious adolescent longing that at first seems wrong for the characters. These beautiful kids can get all the “just one” kiss/screw/fucks they want, with each other. But its nervy restlessness pulses beneath the surface. There’s always something that matters that these characters just can’t quite seize.
Massadian is adept at portraying economic hardship without patronization. The duo will take jobs (fishing boat, hotel maid) and face the kind of life changes that are inevitable for teens, unsupervised, who are free to do what comes naturally. But the film is named Milla for a reason. Leo is not around for the back half, which finds Milla now bonded with another young male, more deeply than ever: Milla and Leo’s new son. Milla’s love for him makes her love for Leo look juvenile by comparison. This is deep and abiding, and suddenly the Milla from that long-ago opening shot, in the car/bower, seems as much a child as the kid she now nurses. Jonckeere is a superb laugher and responder, her sleepy eyes and gently puckered mouth as entrancing as Massadian’s compositions. Bookending scenes of Milla and her boys putting on nail polish prove the film’s dual high points: The lazy, sexy play of Milla and Leo dabbing polish on each other gives way to the warm peacefulness of her painting her son’s fingernails. Meanwhile, work and mothering wear on Milla, an inevitability we see in her eyes rather than in melodrama. We observe moments of living rather than the beats of a story, all that natural lighting and everyday quiet stirring the sense of lives taking shape before our eyes.
Directed by Valérie Massadian
Opens August 3, Anthology Film Archives
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