Valérie Massadian’s Milla begins with a stylistic bait-and-switch that neatly summarizes the film’s overall sense of formal balance. The delicate first shot, of two entwined lovers lying in the woods, is filtered through a gossamer-like haze and brings to mind a romantic painting for how it emanates a vastness around the carefully lit and positioned characters. The subsequent shot reveals that the silky glow of the previous composition originated from the fogged rear window of an old, cheap car. In effect, artifice is reined in by the quotidian. The rest of the film is an exploration of the space between these aesthetic poles of painterly formalism and direct realism, tracking the relationship of two teen lovers, Milla (Severine Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel), through the emotional mechanisms that make them human and allow them to deal with each other and their crippling poverty.
Throughout the film, Massadian circumspectly establishes her characters’ economic straits, spotting but not calling too much attention to the ways Milla and Leo scrimp and save in order to get by. Early on, Leo orders a sandwich for himself, at which point Milla decides she wants one as well. Without missing a beat, Leo casually says they can share one, not drawing out a painful discussion about money in front of the vendor, though the implication of his statement is clear. Later, in an unadorned, cramped bedroom, Milla and Leo carefully count out coins on a pallet of blankets they’re using as a bed. And these small rituals of sacrifice prefigure fleeting displays of happiness, from Leo dancing in order to amuse Milla to the simple routines that Milla hopes will make her feel more centered, like painting her nails.
Massadian’s compositions of the couple’s small home are intimate and naturalistic, calling attention to Milla and Leo’s lack of possessions. The couple even avoids artificial light to save money, and as such many shots in the film only use natural light. Most memorable is a scene in which the sunlight filters into the couple’s bedroom through thick curtains, creating a womb-like glow of reddish-pink that emanates a sense of safety.
The most obvious antecedent for Massadian’s thematically direct but artistically abstract rendition of desperate poverty are the Fontainhas films of Pedro Costa. Massadian is less painterly than Costa, but she similarly finds ways to render her characters’ specific situations as artful illustrations of their social contexts. Living in the outskirts of a seaside town in northern France, Leo and Milla are more often seen against expansive natural backgrounds than urban ones, a visual cue to remind us of their economic alienation. When the filmmaker does situate the pair within the confines of the city they call home, it’s in rundown areas of post-industrial decay, where abandoned buildings have succumbed to rust due to neglect and the salty coastal air. Transitions frequently elide over key plot details while leaving no confusion as to what transpired here, placing focus less on the concrete misery of the characters’ experiences than their increasingly drained responses to it.
That’s especially true of a mid-film twist that—spoilers herein—leaves a pregnant Milla alone and emotionally unmoored. Eschewing melodrama, the film settles into a chilly reflection of the sorrow that shadows Milla, who must get a job before she has any time to process her grief. Finding work as a maid, she drifts dully through a hotel’s hallways, her own dissonant state matched by the clashes between the solid colors of the building’s walls and its tacky carpeting. Massadian’s formal experimentation peaks with an arresting sequence in which the camera slowly pans over the rich, purple walls of a hotel conference room toward the direction of a singing woman’s voice, gradually revealing the woman and an accompanying guitarist performing passionately for no one. That is, until Milla stumbles upon them, ogling cautiously from a distance before silently returning to her work. The fixed dimensions of the hotel’s corridors work to fame Milla within angular, almost inhuman compositions, which make close-ups of her face feel like small revolts against the cold indifference of the world to her situation.
For all the trauma that suffuses its middle act, Milla nonetheless resolves on a hopeful note. The final scenes depict Milla raising her infant son, teaching him how to walk and brush his teeth. Massadian takes these scenes at face value, decompressing from the more haunting passages that preceded them by focusing on Milla’s simple tasks. Massadian then presses deeper, illustrating how Milla’s affectionate interactions with her son help her to cope with her lingering traumas. Motherhood and the responsibility it carries brings a certain structure to her life, and though the film doesn’t shy away from the hardships she still faces, Milla does at least look reconciled with the world around her, no longer completely detached from her surroundings.