The intimacy and intensity of motherhood is rarely depicted in film. Not only because as a subject mothering tends to be sanitised, patronised or reduced to cliché, but because practically speaking, such scenes require the cooperation of children. By the time children are old enough to be coached, they are too self-conscious to convince. And while very young children are relatively free of inhibitions, they lack the closeness with the actor playing their parent required to depict any of the urgencies of the parental bond. The overall result is generally a muted palate of mothering. One suspects also holding back the process is a lack of mothering experience among directors. When watching mothers on screen, one frequently gets the feeling that what is being depicted is mothering recalled imperfectly from the childhood of adults, rather than insightful observations of the role. While most directors lack experience for “recreating” motherhood, critics similarly often lack experience for analysing representation.
Valérie Massadian does something special in her film by using a mother and her own child, Séverine and Ethan Jockeere respectively, to play the parts in Milla. Here, then, is the violence of mothering small children, who slap at your face and kick at your stomach as you attempt to help them. Here is bodily autonomy as it first emerges. Legs pulled involuntarily apart to put a nappy in place, matched by the stiff-legged determination of an unwilling toddler. Here is the near endless negotiation with the newly verbal. Here is the push and pull of dependence and independence, of love and resentment.
Massadian’s use of duration forces the viewer into temporal alignment with the patience of the young mother, Milla. Scenes with her bargaining with her son over a snack or teaching him to brush his teeth run uninterrupted for two minutes at a time. It is long enough to both feel the stoic restraint required but also to locate the fond exchanges mothers enjoy with their children. Another scene depicts the pair departing from their apartment. The scene is framed so that the viewer sees all the many steps involved for a parent with a toddler in simply leaving the front door.
Several reviews of Milla interpreted the meandering mothering scenes as expressions of deep grief, describing them variously as “domestic loneliness”,1 “exquisite tragedy”,2 or “helplessness”.3 But these are simply scenes of motherhood, unabridged. At once full and empty, content and lonely, delightful and dull. This is a mother’s pace, and many are unaccustomed to experiencing it.
Others focused on Milla’s identity as a teenage mother, seeing the film as a story of the “struggle to raise a baby”[ 4. Ibid.] or “the uneasy transition from childhood to motherhood”.4 This is a revealing analysis. While the film examines grief it also depicts Milla as an affectionate, joyful, attentive and gracefully patient mother. Despite the stigma around young mothers, few are better prepared for motherhood in terms of physical fitness and light heartedness than teenagers. Milla (Séverine), is one of the more competent mothers to appear on screen.
Massadian, herself, describes wanting to make a film that captured the obstacles and vulnerabilities of single parenthood without becoming bleak. “(O)nce I decided to start the film about the young mother, I went up north to look for locations, because nature is important to me. I wanted something with the ocean. There is Brittany that I know really well. Brittany is harsh and Shakespearean. The rocks are harsh and mean. It can be too tragic, and I wanted something rounder.”5
The town, Cherbourg, in which Milla exists, is decades from its last sign of economic opportunity. Buildings from an earlier era of architecture are sliding into decline. Job advertisements are for roles in managing downsizes.
In the first half of the film, Milla and her boyfriend Léo (Luc Chessel) are teenagers picnicking by a stream, taunting one another playfully, but also tethered by poverty. They halve their sandwich order and opt to share instead, break into an empty home and make it a squat, count out their coins and scavenge for furniture and sellable goods.
When halfway through the film Léo dies at work you do not have to see the death —and you do not, such is Massadian’s dedication to life without spectacle — to know that his is the death of the young and low skilled, working in arduous conditions for businesses that likely cut corners.
Heavily pregnant and newly alone, Milla finds work as a cleaner in a hotel. The essential nature of work for the low paid is a constant theme of the film. The neatly maintained divisions between jobs and social connection, made possible with higher incomes, are absent. Milla doesn’t holiday, doesn’t go out for brunch. The majority of Milla’s most meaningful exchanges, such as when she outlines her future ambitions or tries to encourage maternal gestures from other women, happen with workmates.
In this context, the later protracted scenes of mothering make sense. Life happens for Milla not in her free time, which is limited, but while she works, including when the work is mothering work. Even the film’s breastfeeding scene extends long enough for the viewer to appreciate the effort of suckling for newborns, the scene only ending when the infant finally pauses to rest. Few films illustrate so clearly the less visible labours of mothering — not just the feeding and bathing but the understanding and anticipating of another’s needs and the intelligence required for the task. Milla makes obvious that mothering work occurs in seemingly passive moments with mothers.
But Milla is not a homage to utility. Massadian’s poverty, reminiscent of that of photographer Alec Soth, is tough but not devoid of beauty. The film pays as much loving attention to sunlight falling on walls as it does to the routines of a young single mother. Massadian has described the making of Milla as an act of tenderness.6 If anyone is owed attention to the beauty in their lives it is someone for whom life is difficult. The film ends as it begins, with Milla being embraced, in the beginning by her partner and in the end by her son.
- Daniel Kasman, “Notebook Festival: Favourite Moments from the Locarno Festival 2017”, Mubi Notebook, 7 August 2017. ↩
- 2. James Lattimer, “Locarno Film Festival 2017,” Slant, 8 August 2017. ↩
- Andreea Patru, “Locarno 2017: Defying the archetypal mother,” desistfilm, 6 August 2017. ↩
- Matt Turner, “People Should Be Taken Care Of: Valérie Massadian discusses Milla,” Mubi Notebook, 28 August 2017. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩