Milla opens in a state of languor: a young couple snuggled up together, camping in their car. In our very first sight of Milla (Séverine Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel), condensation on the car windows forms a natural softening filter between the lovers and their audience, bathing their morning idyll in a haziness never to be seen again. Later, they eat a cobbled together breakfast in the forest, a lushly composed scene of domestic and romantic peace. It’s worth noting these early moments of leisure for they provide the first inkling of unfussy and unsentimental consideration that permeates Milla, a work of patient and heart-aching metamorphosis.
Milla and Leo make their way to windswept Normandy and set up home in an abandoned cottage. Milla is pregnant and both parents are jobless; together they gather what they can in preparation for their son and keep each other’s spirits buoyed in the face of their situation: no income, no home, and no roots or friends in the community to speak of.
Over a series of unhurried but purposeful vignettes, director Valérie Massadian (Nana, 2011) focuses primarily on sketching the surprisingly strong rapport of this couple with seemingly little to no options available. It’s here that her humanist project lays down its formal ground rules: the seemingly tumultuous inner lives of Milla and Leo will not be psychologized or dramatized. What insights we are to draw from witnessing these lives must make do with pure facts of the senses: gestures, chores, looks, a favourite song, repeated jibes, spaces, the changing angle of the sun, and the colour of curtains that Milla rescues from a dumpster.
Massadian’s camera remains fixed and anthropological in its distance, relying largely on medium-wide and wide shots without ever losing an all-encompassing attachment to her subjects. Wherein many directors might have plunged headlong into moving the camera, Dardennes-style, to charge up mundane events, or in using longer lenses to capture more in the way of facial reactions, Massadian remains confident in her command of stillness and mise-en-scene. It’s the work of a painter: Everything we learn about Milla and Leo comes from their bodies in relation to a series of threadbare environments and tasks rich in colour and contrast. And here, again, she avoids the cliches of much “realist” cinema about poverty. Where another might have desaturated the colour scheme to intensify the sense of desolation and struggle, Massadian chooses the opposite. Every environment playing host to Milla, Leo, and their son is realized with rich and saturated coordination and contrast. There is a humility and confidence at every step here that is nearly invisible in execution but deeply moving: an absolute commitment to these humans and their inherent dignity, recorded with unforced elegance. No matter the struggle, every moment is capable of being a pageant of colour and life.
And that life moves along: they pass the time setting up their domestic refuge, Leo eventually finds work as a fisherman, and a gently drawn arc of events emerges. Misfortune rears its head, more time passes, and Milla takes a job as a hotel maid (striking up a deeply moving friendship with another worker, played by Massadian herself). A few years later we pick up with her and her three-year old son (Ethan Jonckeere) as they navigate a precarious life subsisting on social assistance.
It’s in these middle and final chapters that the film’s metamorphic nature becomes obvious and astonishing; without sacrificing her previously established schema, Massadian navigates dreamy internal interludes, the yearning of memory, and even something of a haunting with a grace and matter-of-factness that recalls the best of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. All which happens before the eye of the camera is an event equal to the next, and the question of demarcating what is and isn’t “real” becomes irrelevant in the face of such gently hypnotic cinema.
In the final stretch, the film makes a deft turn nearly into the realm of pure documentary, as Séverine Jonckeere interacts with her real-life son in one domestic vignette after another. The film’s sense of playfulness reaches its peak in what could be described as the ultimate act of hangout cinema: traversing the layers of performance between Séverine and Ethan in their own relationship, Massadian fashions a sort of theatre of love extending from parent to child to director to audience (sometimes literally, when Ethan breaks the fourth wall). These scenes are pure joy to behold: the unexpectedly quotidian climax of a work constantly adapting to the changing situation of its subjects.
From the opening idyll in the forest to a fussy dinner of frozen french fries, Massadian never loses the unspoken thread running throughout: that all of this woman’s life is charged with a fullness too great to articulate. In its limitless and unsentimental compassion, Milla calls out the dignity of the poor, the forgotten, and the overworked simply by its patient witness. But it does not remain there; it turns what could be another unidirectional meditation on poverty into a community of joy. This is simply, and nothing more than, the cinema of beatitude.