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Longtime fans of Gallic auteur Mia Hansen-Love (Eden, Things to Come) — and you can count this critic among them — will be happy to know that her latest film, Maya, which is set mostly in Goa, performed primarily in English and features one Frenchman surrounded by a cast of non-Frenchies, is still very much a Hansen-Love affair: from its gentle and meandering narrative to its fine sense of detail to its tender chronicle of a character gradually overcoming trauma and seeing life anew.
And, like the 37-year-old writer-director’s five other movies, this one has a tinge of autobiography to it (Maya and Mia are almost homophones), with the filmmaker personalizing parts of a story that follows a former French hostage, Gabriel (Roman Kolinka), as he returns home to Paris and takes off abroad to India, where he falls in love with the younger, titular heroine.
Yet not everything about Maya feels on par with Hansen-Love’s previous work, especially a lead actor who’s easy on the eyes but doesn’t always register enough as a performer, and bits of clumsy, expository dialogue that reveal how English is not exactly the director’s native tongue. The result is a drama whose emotional charge is a tad more subdued than usual, even if there are several grace notes throughout. Whether or not this will transform into ticket sales at home or abroad seems questionable, although the film could find support with the auteur’s loyal following.
During the prologue of an opening, which takes place in a cool and overcast Paris, we follow 30-ish Gabriel’s homecoming through a series of short, matter-of-fact scenes that underscore his aloofness to everything. “For you, there’s a before and after,” a shrink warns him, but Gabriel — who was working as a reporter for The Daily Beast when he was kidnapped in Syria — doesn’t seem overtly shell-shocked by what happened, or else he’s managed to bury his PTSD behind all the cigarettes he smokes.
After a wave of TV interviews and medical exams, which he partakes in along with fellow ex-hostage, Frederic (Alex Descas), Gabriel reunites with his girlfriend, Naomi (Judith Chemla), resulting in an early highlight that has the latter belting out a Schubert aria inside a café crowded with friends and family. But we soon learn that Gabriel and Naomi actually broke up before he was captured, making their newfound love merely transitory. The fact that another French reporter is still being held prisoner undermines Gabriel’s sense of relief and straps him with the weight of guilt.
Just when you think our hero is going to fall into a long Parisian slump, the action suddenly shifts overseas, light and dust filling the frame as Gabriel is driven to a ramshackle wooden home in Goa. What he’s doing there remains a mystery for a while, until we learn that the house, which he inherited from his French diplomat father, was an important part of his childhood. But one could also surmise that Gabriel has chosen exile as a way to distance himself from the incident, puffing joints on the beach and picking up girls in clubs as a way to get out of his own head.
Hansen-Love keeps the camera glued to Gabriel’s every move in such an adorning way (in several scenes he’s stripped down to his underwear) that it’s easy at times to identify with his pain, or his numbness to it, even if Kolinka isn’t the most expressive of actors and lacks the range needed to turn up the heat. If anything, Gabriel often looks bewildered and a bit lost — a sentiment that’s best expressed in a scene where he chases after a pair of mysterious attackers who broke into his house, following them deeper and deeper into the jungle.
The story shifts focus when Gabriel crosses paths with Maya (the smart and lively Aarshi Banerjee, making her screen debut), who happens to be the teenage daughter of his Indian godfather, Monty (Pathy Aiyar), a local hotel proprietor. An early sequence of Monty lamenting how Goa has become a tourist trap is a tad awkward, as if Hansen-Love were delivering a subpar Merchant Ivory picture — in general the English dialogue could have used more work — although Maya proves to be an illuminating presence, with Banerjee adding an earnest slice of wit and romance to the action.
Inevitably a love affair develops between the weary, damaged Frenchman and the wide-eyed and rather wise young student, though the film takes its time to get there and resolves it in a way that feels both authentic to the characters and slightly underwhelming. Yet as in many of Hansen-Love’s other movies — Goodbye First Love comes most to mind — Maya is less concerned with the relationship than with showing how a person can vanquish emotional turmoil (in First Love it was a breakup; in Eden a suicide; in Things to Come a divorce), opening up their eyes and their heart with new experiences — losing themselves only to remember who they were in the first place.
This is why the film’s most memorable sequence is not one of its select love scenes, but rather a travelogue that Hansen-Love inserts about halfway through the story. Shooting on celluloid with a skeleton crew, the director (working for the first time with DP Helene Louvart, Beach Rats) tracks Gabriel as he journeys alone across India and winds up in Mumbai, where he pays a visit to his estranged mother (Johanna Ter Steege).
Not only is the interlude gorgeous to look at, with its grainy on-the-fly images of Kolinka riding trains, wandering streets and marketplaces, or taking naps wherever he can, but it encapsulates what Maya is really about: a long and winding voyage to the self, which is an idea that comes full circle in the movie’s final freeze-frame.
The sequence also addresses what some may see as an all-too outsider’s take on India, in a movie set entirely among expats and the Goan bourgeoisie. But like the Jean Renoir classic The River (which Hansen-Love cites in the press notes), Maya never professes to be anything but an outsider’s viewpoint of a faraway place — an extended travel diary with a brief and intimate encounter at its center. As much as Gabriel maintains ties with the land, as much his romance with a local helps to heal his wounds, he’s very much a foreigner trying to find his way home.
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Razor Filmproduktion
Cast: Roman Kolinka, Aarshi Banerjee, Alex Descas, Pathy Aiyar
Director-screenwriter: Mia Hansen-Love
Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Costume designer: Judith de Luze
Editor: Marion Monnier
Casting director: Antoinette Boulat
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Orange Studio
In English, French
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