Milla (Severine Jonckeere), 17, lives a utopian existence in a small French town with her boyfriend, Leo (Luc Chessel), little older than her. Though they appear to lead a marginalized life, working odd jobs to survive and living in an abandoned house in a remote place, they are in love and happy together; nothing else seems to matter. In fact, their alternative lifestyle is a rebellion against the laws of society and bureaucracy; they dress like the punk protagonists of a Jim Jarmusch movie. However, their ambitions of living a quiet and idyllic life together seem charming and honest in a much more traditional way.
Throughout the film, unexpected and even tragic developments force them to grow up and take on more and more responsibilities; this is particularly true of Milla. A sense of inevitability, in fact, dictated by the natural flow of life permeates through Valérie Massadian’s second feature’s relentless succession of carefully framed shots. The director, who also wrote and edited the film (presented at the 70th Locarno Festival’s Cineasti del Presente competition), is very much responsible for its unhurried and yet relentless rhythm and progression.
Furthermore, each of these shots has a meaning and the naturalist portrait it constructs is strengthened by other choices in the presentation of the narrative: the presence of many grey areas in the plot (where do Milla and Leo come from? Are they running away from something? Do they have any relatives, friends, or acquaintances to speak of); the decision to give as much importance to key turning point as seemingly less important ones, often illustrating everyday situations, moments of sweet idleness, etc.; an economical, even skeptical, use of dialogue.
The latter choice is particularly interesting; words in Milla are often muttered, improvised, and do little to move the story forward. Emotions are rarely discussed in a candid way and there is no exposition dialogue. In some cases, Massadian opts for absurdism; in one sequence, Milla’s troubled and complex emotions are represented through the emerging and energetic live performance by an electric guitar and vocals garage punk rock duo.
Though the film appears to be rather simple, its simplicity is nonconformist and ambitious. Milla appears to suggest that the true rebellion against the system and hardships in life is to remain positive and keep a smile on your face no matter how many negative things may happen. This may also be the reason why the film is full of vivid colours and textures, dramatic lighting, and carefully composed mise-en-scéne. It is a celebration of timeless youthful courageousness.
Milla is an intimate drama that treats its intimacy as a source of excitement, quietly reinterpreting many clichés in the process. And it is certainly enriched by some great acting. In particular, Jonckeere’s performance is very touching. Her childlike nature, initially frustrating, becomes a symbol of her character’s strength and sensibility, something we hope will be preserved as the movie progresses. A lot of the film’s truth lies in her giggles, and in Jonckeere’s big round eyes and bleach blonde hair – a genuineness as real as Giulietta Masina’s in Federico Fellini’s La Strada. – ★★★★
MILLA | 2017, France | Drama | Directed by – Valérie Massadian / Produced by – Sophie Erbs / Written by – Valérie Massadian / Cinematography – Mel Massadian, Robin Fresson / Edited by – Valerie Massadian / Starring – Severine Jonckeere, Luc Chessel, Ethan Jonckeere | Running time: 128 mins.