This project began in Melbourne’s Princes Park. Margot, Maura’s daughter, was ambling about in the sunshine while we discussed Milla, and its recent debut at Locarno 2017. Margot was then only a little younger than Kelyna Lecomte, the four year-old lead of Valérie Massadian’s debut feature Nana (2011). Margot wanted to play hide and seek, and so we did, though in all honesty she was not very good at it. Watching her, we were struck by the precision with which Valérie had captured Kelyna, and the tottering and muttering of a little child. That something so commonplace could also be unique reveals the value of Massadian’s attention but also the value with which early childhood is attended to.
What was remarkable, if to an uncle and not a mother, was the transparency of Margot’s attention. In watching her, in her ambles and detours, her imitations of us and demands for attention, you could see her thought and care. Writing about Abbas Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More… (1992) – in which a stand-in for the director and his son drive around the countryside devastated by the 1990 Manjil-Rudbar earthquake in search of Ahmad Ahmadpour, the child protagonist of his earlier film Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) – Jean-Luc Nancy describes the car as a “boîte a regard”, a gazing box.1 The windscreen frames their vision, and through their constant detours and perambulations, makes visible the ethical deliberation that has gone into looking for the vantage point that will do “justice” to the overwhelming tragedy. Likewise Kelyna as Nana as a regarding child, folds both sides into one plane of ethical attention to the world, watching and watched over.
Massadian demands justice to the world and from the world. “People should be taken care of,” she states, in reference to the real and representational kindness of Milla.2 Lensed by her son Mel Massadian, informed by her own experiences of being a very young mother, and made in collaboration with a non-professional cast, including mother and son Séverine and Ethan Jonckeere, Milla is at once a documentation, representation and consequence of lives marked by care and need. Nana too, with its re-presentation of a four year-old, mothered and unmothered, is an outcome of Massadian’s relationship with Kelyna Lecomte, and with the region in St Jean de la Forêt, Normandy, where Kelyna and Massadian’s mother both live. In a letter addressed to Kelyna, reproduced here, Massadian describes their evolving relationship, “I believe in films like in love gestures, from you to me, from me to you, from us to others.”
Massadian’s films represent care work – mothers, parents, lovers and friends, taking care of the bodily needs of each other and tending to social relationships – but equally she undertakes care as a production practice. The result is a regarding vision of intimate gestures and actions rarely seen on screen, and in many cases only practically possible to film because of an established relationship of trust between the filmmaker and her collaborators. “I make fiction with real people, infested by life,” says Massadian.3 Fictional relationships and the formation and development of ongoing relationships refuse any easy distinctions between documentary and fiction. Instead her vision casts these relationships as an alloy that forms an index of the production process. Terms like “documentary” and “realism” might seem like a distraction from Massadian’s work – which, particularly in Milla, oscillates instead between realism and symbolism – but these terms point to epistemological bridges between fiction, non-fiction and process, and are inhabited by Massadian as director, producer and actor – visibly enacting care.
Massadian pushes against the notion that her works are autobiographical, instead emphasising the importance of reality as a building block for fiction, and as a shared recognised experience that allows her to communicate and ask things of her collaborators. It is in this light that these biographical details are offered. Born in Asnières, a suburb of Paris, in 1972 to Christiane and the Armenian-born Jacques Massadian, Valérie Massadian is raised by her working class parents at her grandparents, then in the countryside, while her parents continue to work in the city. Her father’s work at the counterculture publication Actuel introduces him to a new, more intellectual environment and through this radically expands his philosophical horizons and outlook. This change Massadian credits as also mentally liberating her. Regardless, the burden of near-raising her brother alone while her parents work away in Paris leads to her running away from home. Her family move to Paris, but by 1986 she has become a model in Japan then New York. Now 18, having returned to Paris, and a long, obsessive, fan of movies, Massadian begins working for the film distributor Pyramide, with producer Fabienne Vonier. In 1991, aged 19, she gives birth to her son, Mel.
In 1990, elsewhere, she also begins assisting – drawing, casting, organising – fashion designer Jean Colonna whose raw and sensually unkempt aesthetic was at first informed by the work of legendary photographer and slideshow filmmaker Nan Goldin, before Colonna and Goldin begin actively collaborating on projects. It is through this partnership that Massadian meets Goldin and starts appearing in her photographic series in 1999, before working as an assistant editor for her from 2001 to 2003. Paralleling her father’s expansive immersion in the publication of Actuel, Massadian’s immersion in the publication of such Goldin works as Heartbeat (2000-01) and The Devil’s Playground (2003), informs her new personal artistic practice as a photographer – also seeing her developing slideshows whose form re-appears in her short film works. In 2011 she releases her debut feature, Nana, at the Locarno Festival where she wins the Golden Leopard for Best Film Feature. While making a living through ancillary work for the film industry, Massadian releases a number of shorts, Mamoushka (2012), Precious (2012) and America (2013) before returning to Locarno in 2017 with her second feature Milla.
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This collection is grounded in Valérie Massadian, as filmmaker and producer of relationships. It opens with her Letter to Kelyna, a personal missive and statement of intent before shifting to her manifesto of what “The Real” is: a dynamic of relationships. The belief in the real as relationship guides the following essays whether epistemological relationships or physical relationships – or typically, despite our structural division, locating their coordinates amid both sets of relationships.
Leo Goldsmith, Ela Bittencourt and Michael Sicinski consider the epistemological relationships of Massadian’s films. Goldsmith casts an eye over the body of Massadian’s work in its entirety, noting the recurring split between voice and body in her shorts, and, drawing on Bresson, the split between actor and model. Goldsmith sees within these divisions the elements for producing “a complex negotiation of real bodies and fictionalised worlds and personas” in what he calls “an economy of gestures”, to and from Massadian and her collaborators. Bittencourt and Sicinski both identify within Massadian’s films a vision somewhere between quotidian, groundout realism and the empirical vision of the untamed eye and its infinite possibilities. Bittencourt sees Nana as a natural inquisitor whose curiosity about her world is also an ethical exploration structured by a series of comings and goings, echoes and repetitions, play and rehearsal, within a “circular psychic space.” Sicinski similarly sees within Nana the inquisitive perspective of a child as a means of renewing vision, and extends this to Milla. From the view of a child or a new mother, both discovering fresh worlds, Sicinski finds angles or anamorphic moments that take us between the sublime and the everyday.
Luc Chessel, Annabel Brady-Brown and Andie Fox attend to the physical relationships of Massadian’s films. Chessel, who plays Léo in Milla, sees Massadian’s filmmaking as mise en jeu, a setting into play that becomes a process of giving back. Séverine Jonckeere, who plays single mother Milla, and her real-life son Ethan, gave to the film a story close to their own. In return, Milla gave to its Milla both the finished film and the filming process – bringing a vision of justice to life and establishing new relationships. Brady-Brown lights on Massadian’s comparison of film to dance – flitting between fiction and non-fiction, romanticism and realism – but also a caring spectacle that binds poetic motion with a guiding, collaborative embrace within which partners can attend to one another. Between Chessel and Massadian’s own supportive appearances in Milla, Brady-Brown finds a concrete manifestation of care and a documentation of Massadian’s own formation of relationships. Fox examines the unabridged motherhood of Milla, the loving patience demanded by the “violence of mothering small children”: legs squirming, fingers pulling, endless negotiations. Mirrored by other undervalued work depicted in the film, Fox observes how Milla makes visible the labours of motherhood – cleaning, feeding, changing – but also the regard that’s required to anticipate the needs of others.
The collection concludes with an interview conducted with Massadian over Skype in November 2018 on her past, the construction of fiction out of brute reality, her future projects, and what we can be judged on.
Senses of Cinema is publishing the online version of this collection, and a print version will be published shortly, and will also include a reproduction of one of the first key English-language pieces on Massadian by Jay Kuehner for Cinema Scope (not reproduced here as it already exists on the internet here).
We thank all the writers, publishers and copyright holders for their work and permissions, enabling this collection of writings to come together.
- Ian Balfour, “Nancy on Film:” Regarding Kiarostami, Re-Thinking Representation (with a Coda on Claire Denis)”, Journal of Visual Culture 9.1, April 2010, p. 36; and Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Evidence of the Film: Abbas Kiarostami, trans. Christine Irizarry and Verena Andermatt Conley, Yves Gevaert Publisher, Paris, 2001. ↩
- Matt Turner, “People Should Be Taken Care of: Valérie Massadian Discusses Milla,” Mubi Notebook, 28 August 2017. ↩
- Jason Di Rosso, “Milla: Valerie Massadian’s portrait of motherhood and grief,” ABC Radio National, 19 July 2018. ↩