Mia Hansen-Løve is unabashedly drawn to intellectually confident yet emotionally isolated characters confronting a world that won’t stop spinning. Things to Come, from 2016, followed a professor unmoored by death, divorce, and a suddenly overwhelming sense of loss due to events that underlined her own impermanence. In 2014’s Eden, Félix de Givry’s EDM DJ became so blindly devoted to a trend that he barely seemed to notice when it ended. Hansen-Løve’s latest, Maya, is neither as sweeping as the latter nor as elegant as the former, but the filmmaker’s interest in the changing weather patterns of her protagonists’ intellectual and emotional lives remains unique and gratifying.
Maya‘s opening shot peers into a bathroom, where a mirror displays the naked and bruised backside of Gabriel (Roman Kolinka), a war reporter in his early 30s who’s recently been released from captivity under ISIS in Syria. (The film begins in December 2012.) That we can see Gabriel’s injury and he cannot is apt: Gabriel is intent on fleeing from both his trauma and his temporary celebrity, which flares up amid a national debate about whether the French government should devote its resources to paying ransoms to terrorists. Further compounding Gabriel’s guilt, both he and a fellow hostage, Frederic (Alex Descas), have been retrieved while a third remains captive in Syria.
This information is delivered in a series of solemn but brusque, information-dense scenes, a pace that continues as Gabriel refuses psychological treatment, re-breaks up with his ex-girlfriend, Naomi (Judith Chemla), and travels to the west Indian state of Goa, a beach-lined area popular with tourists. Having spent years there as a child, Gabriel revisits a childhood home entrusted to him by his mother (Johanna Ter Steege) and rekindles a relationship with his godfather, Monty (Pathy Aiyar), a resort owner whose teenage daughter (Aarshi Banerjee) gives the film its name.
The intimacy of writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya is as precise as its intellect is vague.
Like Gabriel, Maya has abandoned one home (in London) for another, abruptly leaving her foreign school in order to return to a land and lifestyle with which she feels some connection. Certainly inspired by Jean Renoir’s 1951 classic The River, Hansen-Løve is quietly and sometimes amusingly forthright about the film’s privileged perspective: a wrecked scooter is back in working order within a few shots; and Gabriel freely alternates between boarding in thatched huts and more luxurious environs throughout his travels around the country. Cinematographer Helene Lourant’s 35mm camera stays close to Gabriel throughout the film, and editor Marion Monnier’s sometimes jolting transitions suggest the character’s simmering impulsivity and restlessness.
Kolinka’s performance is, much like de Givry’s in Eden, almost dangerously interior, but Hansen-Løve has a way of fostering intimacy with characters who are devoutly withholding. Abrupt shifts from day to night underline Gabriel’s peripatetic state, and a set of striking cuts reveal that Gabriel has shaved or cut his hair: These are activities characters in most films either don’t do or ceremoniously undertake in order to transition from one emotional plane to another. That Gabriel does one or the other repeatedly throughout Maya for no apparent reason is uniquely familiarizing, particularly in a film so attached to—and justifiably enamored of—one body. It’s also revealing of how deftly Hansen-Løve plays with time: As Gabriel’s sabbatical continues and his beards come and go, it becomes increasingly unclear how long he’s been away, and what sort of idea of selfhood he’s looking to return to.
Maya attempts to clarify some of this through Gabriel’s conversations with the title character, who’s at once an idealistic muse and an ephemeral love interest. Despite her cosmopolitan upbringing, Maya appears profoundly rooted in her homeland, at ease delivering Hansen-Løve’s professorial and terminally dramaturgically clumsy paragraphs of historical information about Goa’s heritage and the wave of development that threatens it.
Though the filmmaker handles Gabriel and Maya’s romance—and outré age difference—with tact, allowing it to morph in ways that are true to each character, it’s difficult to tell whether the film fails to convey how the relationship changes Gabriel, or if it’s meant to in the first place. The film’s intimacy is as precise as its intellect is vague. Maya‘s major geographical reference points (India, France, and Syria) gesture somewhat reductively toward aspects of Gabriel’s persona (his heart, his mind, and his work) and themes of personal, professional, and historical trauma, but Hansen-Løve’s film is too mild and emotionally diffuse to sustain an argument of such weight. The film’s final scene and its freeze-framed final shot suggest a becoming or a return to self that Gabriel can’t quite convey.