There are no simple passkeys to understanding the cinema of Valérie Massadian, a body of work that is both mysterious and remarkably plainspoken. Other commentators have noted her beginnings as a photographer, in particular her work with legendary image-maker Nan Goldin. It’s true that, like Goldin, Massadian is drawn to people on the margins of society. But Massadian prefers to look at such figures in a sidelong, almost anamorphic way. Even in the margins, Massadian’s films scope out an unexpected, often oblique viewpoint on subjects we may think we know well.
Her debut feature Nana (2011) is a perfect example of this. Set in the rural Perche region, the film is not so far removed from other examinations of farm life. Jay Kuehner, compares it to the work of Raymond Depardon,1 and one could also consider it alongside Bruno Dumont’s films, despite Massadian’s distinct lack of grotesquery. We observe the slaughter of a pig, see the results of a rabbit snare, and watch as family members rove across the semi-expansive farmland. But there is much more to Nana than this.
The film is presented from the viewpoint of the title character (Kelyna Lecomte), a four year-old girl whose grandfather (Alain Sabras) runs the farm. It is from Nana’s perspective that we watch the pig die in the opening scene — a mix of horror and fascination. She is the one who discovers the dead rabbit in the trap and, prior to building a funeral pyre for it, carries it around like a stuffed animal, aware of the stakes of death but ambivalent to them.
Massadian keeps the camera low, often fixed, and asks us to perceive the natural world through the eyes of someone learning about it. With its clear-eyed realism, straight cuts, and insistence on the newness of everything that falls within Nana’s eyeline, Nana resembles the seemingly impossible union of Maurice Pialat and Stan Brakhage. The landscape is both radiant and flat, a playground and a quotidian world in which Nana must find her place.
This child’s-eye perspective eventually becomes disturbing, as Massadian rigorously allows us only to know what Nana can reasonably understand. We occasionally see Nana’s mother (Marie Delmas), who lives in a shack on the property with the girl. Her mum takes care of her, bathing her and gathering firewood for the stove. But her presence is intermittent. We see her argue with Nana’s grandfather, for unclear reasons. She leaves a note on the old man’s windshield. And before long, she is gone.
Nana seems used to her mother disappearing for nights at a time, but doesn’t understand why she has not returned this time. Midway through the film, Massadian gives us a clue. We see Nana sitting by herself working a jigsaw puzzle, reciting snatches of dialogue that she must have picked up from somewhere: “What a fucking mess;” “I’m tired of your bullshit;” “No! Not in my butt!” Plainly Nana’s mother is in an abusive relationship, and she has either fled, without her daughter, or she has fallen victim to unspeakable violence.
None of this registers to Nana, but it all exists in her unconscious. Like the dead rabbit she plays with (a nod to Joseph Beuys, perhaps?), the loss of her mother is normalised for Nana. A farm is a place where death is an everyday occurrence, but Massadian is combining this fact of the peasantry with the equally banal violence faced by women and the underclass. Who will Nana become? What is being transmitted to her? She is learning that women, like pigs, do not survive, just as surely as she is teaching herself her ABCs.
Massadian shifts her focus from the rural to the urban poor in her second feature, Milla (2017). The story of a young couple who are squatting and gleaning their way through a life of poverty in a small northern port town. Milla (Séverine Jonckeere) is seventeen, her boyfriend Léo (Luc Chessel) a bit older. When we first see them, they are presented laid out in a frame-filling diagonal composition, their bodies a sfumato haze reminiscent of the cinema of Aleksandr Sokurov. The next shot brings this high aestheticism back down to earthly necessity: they are sleeping in a car, and we were looking at them through a fogged back window.
This collision of the beautiful and the necessary represents the dominant aesthetic mode of Milla. Milla and Léo spend a great deal of time just surviving. They live hand to mouth until they manage to settle down in an abandoned house. Then they are able to enjoy time together as couples tend to do: lying around, reading to each other, counting change (with Milla intentionally breaking Léo’s concentration), Léo grudgingly allowing Milla to put makeup on him…
But there is a treatment of colour and light in Milla that exceeds mere depiction. The red curtains over the main window, for example, bathe everything in a crimson light. And there are scenes on the bed that sculpt the young lovers in a classical chiaroscuro, the sort of Rembrandt-like effects we associate with Pedro Costa’s films. Massadian is clearly interested in this couple as a unique phenomenon in time, two people who are growing and evolving, not merely synecdochal stand-ins for “the poor.”
Milla’s pregnancy begins to show, and Léo gets a job on a fishing boat. They spend more time apart, and this allows Massadian to pay heed to the two of them as individuals, not just as parts of a couple. We see Milla as nervous and a bit petulant, waiting for Léo to come home. On the boat, we see Léo in a different light, a worker among other workers, subsumed within a team. (These fishing segments owe much to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s 2012 documentary Leviathan, and Massadian took part in a residency at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.)
Then the unthinkable happens. Léo’s boat is lost at sea, and Milla is left to have and raise her baby alone.
This is the point when Massadian radically shifts our understanding of who Milla is. We barely see her mourn, because she does not have the time. She is almost instantly thrust into the role of single mother. Part of what the film emphasises is this young woman’s limited but makeshift support system. We never see or hear about her family. They are not in the picture. At first she starts living with her new boss (Massadian), after she takes a job as a maid at a rundown luxury hotel. In time, she is able to secure enough money to afford a small place for herself and her son. But the second half of Milla is primarily about normalising struggle.
At the same time, though, Milla is about dreams and emotions, unexplained phenomena and heightened states of the psyche. The rooms of the hotel are nothing special, but the halls are almost a psychometric space, something from the deepest recesses of the unconscious. With its purple doors, striped carpet, and above all, the icy blue wallpaper silhouetted with trees, the hotel hallway feels as if it is a space between the ordinary and the haunted, the aesthetic and the banal.
As we see Milla yanking her canister vacuum horizontally across the hall, the space at the end of the corridor is suddenly occupied by the band Ghost Dance performing their version of the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up,” a song Milla and Léo listened to together earlier in the film. It is a moment of extreme anguish, the lead singer often struggling to eject the words from her mouth, her voice faltering. This could be Milla’s mindscape made manifest, or a form of surrogate mourning. In either case, the strict realism of the workplace has fallen away, supplementing economic necessity with a more basic human need.
As the film nears its conclusion, we see Milla and her son, Ethan (Ethan Jonckeere), learning how to live together. He has started to talk. She paints his nails, so he can be “pretty” like Mummy. They have a cat. She makes pasta for dinner. She has gotten a new job at a greengrocer, and is planning on going back to school. But in one key scene, we have another break with the ordinary. Ethan is on the floor, playing with his toys, and without explanation, there is Léo, playing alongside him. Is this Léo’s ghost? Milla’s wish, materialised? Something only Ethan can perceive?
Milla is Massadian’s exploration of the intersection of sublime moments within the fabric lives that are not only commonplace, but that are in many ways threaded with adversity. A piece of music, a quality of light, a gesture of a child that perhaps recalls the movement of his dead parent — these are instances that pierce the banality of mere survival. If we consider Milla to be a sequel to Nana, perhaps it is these moments that Massadian hopes for in Nana’s life, as she braces herself for the adversity to come.