'Milla': Film Review

Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
More a portrait of a life than of the woman living it.
8/3/2018

Valerie Massadian's observational drama follows a young woman from homelessness to domesticity.

Quietly observed scenes from a young woman's along-the-fringe path into adulthood, Valerie Massadian's Milla prefers to skip past moments of drama and register only the mundane experiences that make up the bulk of a life. Not quite a character study, in that we must deduce most of its protagonist's personality for ourselves based on scant evidence, the picture does sink into an inviting, if slow-moving, groove. Coming six years after its director's debut, Nana, it suggests what may develop into a strong filmmaking voice.

The title character (Severine Jonckeere, making her debut) is first seen through a fogged-up car window, sleeping peacefully beside her boyfriend Leo (Luc Chessel). The pair seem accustomed to life in the car (with pillowcases on their pillows and a cozy comforter instead of sleeping bags), but soon leave the woods for a French seaside town, where they break into an abandoned house and settle in as squatters.

We live there with them for a spell, watching as they make the place habitable, slowly accumulating domestic goods they've either stolen or found in others' trash. They read from a pile of discarded paperbacks, subsist on candlelit meals of ham and cheese sandwiches; they paint each other's toenails and joke around.

Somewhere in there, she gets pregnant, though there's no scene of discovery or news-breaking. In one shot, Milla puts her hand on her growing belly; in the next, Leo pulls her protectively onto his lap and squeezes her. The next event in their lives is much more dramatic, and even more obliquely presented.

Soon, the scene has changed without explanation. Milla is a pregnant housemaid in a cheap-looking hotel, forming a minimal-dialogue friendship with a co-worker played by the director. As in the first section and the third to come, Milla has scenes on her own and the film occasionally finds her companions in solitude; but anything of consequence (not counting a couple of standalone expressionist scenes) happens when she is with someone else.

Before we've started to wonder how deep this new friendship will run, though, we've skipped ahead again without transition. Milla's son, Ethan, is now a sweet toddler, and she's living in a comfortable-looking apartment stuffed with toys that clearly didn't come out of the garbage. We watch as she plays with the boy, their pastimes sometimes echoing the ways she and Leo diverted themselves; and the film hints that a more middle-class existence lies ahead.

Once during each of the three acts, we listen with Milla to a cover of an old Violent Femmes song. The refrain's lyrics groan, in part, "day after day... add it up," echoing the film's accumulative approach. But the song is mostly about anger, desperation and need, passions Massadian has completely excised here. At its most extreme, the film finds Milla wearily amused, curious or fleetingly annoyed; the emotional moments that push her life in new directions must be colored in by the audience. Though that never feels like much of an intellectual challenge, and the 127-minute film is in no hurry to paint its picture, something about Milla's ordinariness makes her worth getting to know.

Production companies: Cinemadefacto, Gaijin, Terratreme Filmes
Distributor: Grasshopper Films
Cast: Severine Jonckeere, Luc Chessel, Ethan Jonckeere, Valerie Massadian, Elisabeth Cabart
Director-screenwriter-editor: Valerie Massadian
Producers: Sophie Erbs
Directors of photography: Robin Fresson, Mel Massadian

In French
127 minutes