The mimetic ambiguities upon which Valérie Massadian’s Nana teeters are grossly evident in its sure-to-irk opening sequence: As a small cluster of children look on, an aged farmer and a younger hand slaughter a pig in real time, then scorch its skin with smoldering straw for easy peeling. Photographed in an obligatorily dispassionate stationary medium shot, the killing makes us instantly aware of our own role in the film’s high-raised aesthetic stakes; it’s the task of the following fiction to “earn” this gambit of unpleasant (and unsimulated) naturalism in the audience’s eyes, right? But then the scene hiccups. A gawky close-up of the pig’s punctured jugular halts the distanced trance, and a little girl in the corner asks whether it’s “paint or blood” leaking from the animal’s neck. How could anyone accustomed to the cosmic frankness of farm life brandish such casual innocence? As we return to Massadian’s initial wide angle, which we suddenly notice isn’t quite at eye level, we’re bewildered less by the graphic animal execution than by how these few salutatory moments have disrupted rather than deepened our familiarity with the film’s characters.
The nonchalantly naïve girl is Nana (four-year-old Kelyna Lecomte), an impressionable yet precociously pithy youth living in a bleached-out, bucolic region of France with her agrarian grandfather (Alain Sabras) and inexplicably exhausted mother (Marie Delmas), known to us only as “Pappy” and “Maman,” respectively. Two or so days pass gently over the film’s running time, during the first of which Nana and “Maman” play in the thick of woods that surround their home, bathe one another in aluminum buckets, and read aloud fairy tales that require audience-participatory claps to shatter wicked spells. As elysian as it sounds, however, the delicate cinematography throughout provides the mother-daughter bond with an indecipherable restlessness; though mostly static, Massadian’s camera frames the two caught within gnarled rows of unfocused trees, or through cracked, shadowy doorways suggesting an incipient spiritual rot occurring at the heart of the pastoral milieu.
Sure enough, the next morning Nana is forced by undisclosed factors to undergo her daily ritual by herself, and once again the film hiccups: The girl swears loudly as she tends to a calendar, nearly keels over while gathering sticks for a fire, and later builds a funeral pyre for a dead rabbit she stumbles upon in a nearby trap. This last, learned rite furthermore becomes the only manner in which Nana can confront loss, and after its eventual, tertiary iteration (the details of which I won’t spoil), we question whether Nana’s unreliable POV has been controlling the quietly uncanny story all along.
This representational vagueness, which evokes the “gotcha!” slipperiness of it’s-all-a-dream twist endings without stooping to their abrupt and mechanistic dissolution of all unanswered questions, is contradictorily both Nana’s most indelible asset and its most apparent handicap. Without the anxiety-provoking, if recondite, tone, the film would be a series of merely academic swipes between obvious dichotomies: between life and death (Nana’s surrounded with the springy tails of live piglets as soon as the opening execution is complete), between water and earth (Nana and “Maman” sleep on the ground after spraying bottled water in one another’s faces for a lark), and, ultimately, between the concrete and the psychological—or possibly even phantasmic.
But the movie’s meta-cinematic “think piece”-ness is redeemed by the slinky symmetries Massadian draws between her own auteur-ship and her protagonist’s role in the narrative. Just as we wonder whether Nana’s headspace is manipulating the film’s scope (though a few shots without her are smartly included to cast doubt), we’re left guessing as to how much of Massadian’s frequently stark realism has been fabricated. The tension between what appears to be appropriated reportage and what might as well be hallucination becomes a Gordian knot, filling us with dread. By the time even cows sauntering lazily into the edge of the frame seem to have been cued, we’ve been subsumed fully into the core of Nana’s wicked premise—which, like a synthesis of Jean Rouch and Stanley Kubrick, induces paranoia by pointing out that the essential untrustworthiness of film is matched only by that of human nature.