The Human Animal—Valérie Massadian

The Human Animal—Valérie Massadian

From her time working as Nan Goldin’s assistant, Valérie Massadian tells me, she learned to trust in a way of relating “to people, to the world, that’s not intellectual, that’s animal, instinctive.” Her first feature, Nana (2011), adhered to the perspective of a four-year-old girl on the family farm. Her second feature, Milla (2017), lives inside another private world of gestures and thoughts. Reminiscent of Goldin’s work in the intimacy it develops with the young, beautiful, marginal, and borderline unhygienic, Milla follows a young couple through love, pregnancy, tragedy, and economic hardship.

Where else could it have been shot but Cherbourg? Now a faded factory town, the unlikely capital of cinematic romance is where Milla (Severine Jonckeere) and Leo (Luc Chessel) take up residence as squatters. Long-take scenes, framed like still photos, track their flirting and fighting, or the placid, precarious beauty of coming home from work while your partner is asleep, or the exhausting minute-to-minute and day-to-day of Milla’s life with a young child. The pace is rigorous enough to feel anthropological, dreamy enough to let in songs, poems, and dreams.

Massadian found her teenaged star at a shelter for single mothers, where she was living with her toddler son, Ethan. The director also appears in the film as a fellow maid and weary, benevolent presence at the nearly empty hotel where Milla finds work cleaning rooms, and the bond between the two has continued beyond filming. Seeing it at the Locarno Film Festival was a revelation for Jonckeere, a breakthrough of self-belief — which came as a relief to Massadian. “Actors, you pay them, they do their thing,” she told me, “but you come into someone’s life, someone who doesn’t have much, with this world that’s completely foreign to them, and they trust you and give you things. And you have to protect them, you have to give something back, otherwise you’re just a vampire.”

You’ve said in other interviews that this is the third film in a trilogy that you’re making out of order — that you’ll return to the age of about 11 or 12 when Kelyna Lecomte, from Nana, is the right age. What is it about youth that’s drawing you?

I don’t know if it’s youth — I think it’s childhood more than youth.

What’s the difference?

Obeying, being a social being, which to me — I’m not stupid, so I know how to do it, but I’m not very interested in it. So I get along with animals [Laughs] more than social beings. I can do either, like kids or old people, and I knew Milla was going to be complicated, because there’s a self-consciousness, there’s a desire of belonging in a world that’s really strong — it’s not something that attracts me very much because I’m not very interested in the world. I’m interested in people, I’m interested in relationships, but I’m not interested in politicians and governments and societies.

“Milla” (Valérie Massadian)

I wanted to talk about Severine a bit. Were you looking for someone who reflected your interests and the story you wanted to tell, or how much of it was just thinking that she was a compelling person and the character and story took shape…

I think I’m starting to understand after all this time… and I’m not even sure, maybe in a year I’ll say something completely different. I’m not joking when I say I’m interested in the animal in people, that’s what I see first. When I look at someone, I get rid of all the bullshit and I see the fragility, the unconscious… I don’t know, I try to sense the essence. And there’s no arrogance in saying that, it’s just the way I function. I’m not looking for someone that’s gonna shoot the story because I know the story’s gonna change along the way because I have to do it with that person. But I’m looking for someone, first, who’s gonna resist me and be a pain in the ass. It’s a relation of love and battle at the same time…

When I saw Severine, and it was the same thing with Kelyna, they walked in and I knew. Kelyna, we talked, I asked her like two things, and she stared me in the eyes and lied through her teeth, completely bullshitted me. She was three and a half, and I was like, OK, this I can deal with. There’s somebody there. I need somebody in front of me, somebody really strong where there are things that I understand, instinctively, but [there are also] tons of things that I don’t. Otherwise I’m bored. It’s not like we make films with lots of money, and it’s done in like, eight weeks — no, it takes a really long time, it’s slow, and I need to love that person, because I’m going to edit and watch hours of rushes, over and over and over and over again, and I can’t do that if I’m not interested in the person fundamentally.

I know that the boy in the film is Severine’s — she already was a mother when you began?

Yeah. This I knew. An 18-year-old girl who’s been pregnant two years ago — to give her, like, a Chinese fake belly, she’s not gonna walk like a dog. Her body remembers. And the thing that really interested me in the third part of the film was the relation of, basically, two children. I needed them to be with their kid, whether it was a boy or a girl I didn’t care.

How about the editing? Going back into all those hours of this mother and child together, what are you looking for? A narrative arc, a moment—

I’m looking for, not a narrative arc, I’m looking for an arc of emotion, a movement of emotion. And that’s why it looks so planned, or written, when it’s completely not.

The thing is, the most acting in the film is [done by] Ethan. For example, we cook — first, Severine, she doesn’t cook, she makes frozen pizza, now she cooks [Laughs], she had to learn with the film and now she cooks real food for her son, which is great — Ethan is never in the kitchen at that moment in real life. He’s always playing, but then we’re here, there’s the camera, there’s not a lot of human presence in their life so suddenly, he wants to peel the onion. The thing is, he doesn’t give a shit about his image, he’s just there. He’s like Robert Mitchum. [Laughs] No, but seriously, the best fucking actor. Because all the little things, all this he’s doing for us. As a game. Not playing as an actor but playing with us, playing with the tenderness that’s circulating between all of us.

The camera movements in the film are very infrequent, and when they happen they feel very authored, very purposeful — like at Leo’s birthday party, him feeling the love of the crowd and her feeling isolated, and the camera moving between the two and contrasting their experiences. But usually, the camera is fixed in place, and is simply recording these private interactions. When you’re doing these setups, are you trying to direct the viewer toward any kind of specific interpretation, are they more of an aesthetic or a mood thing, or are they meant to be just neutral containers for the subject?

It’s two things. First, to the people I film, to give them a space that’s almost like a theater. Because… I talk. For example, if you take the sequence where Leo’s counting the money. I never give psychological or emotional direction. I just say: “You count the money, because you’re a man and men do serious shit like counting money [Laughs], and you’re a girl and you don’t care, and you’re taking the piss.” Voilà. That’s all I say. So of course, we start, and they’re giggling like idiots, just being the way they are. There are things happening in the bodies that in this silence and in this boredom, there’s a minute-something or two minutes that hold together. And then I’ll say something really nasty to Luc, I say OK, you’re being too nice, fuck you, just be really mad. And it makes him very angry, because I know Luc very well, and he’s really not a violent person at all. And I know it’s going to — he goes really red [Laughs], gets very pissed off, but then it turns into what is in the film.

And then those still frames, they’re a choice in the way that I respect the people I film — which I think I have, a lot — and for whoever’s going to watch (not so many people but it doesn’t matter [Laughs]). I remember when I did the first screening of Nana in the village next to where I shot, this girl came, she was like 25, and she had like four teeth in her mouth and she had three kids behind her, and she said, “I’m sorry, can we watch the film again?” And I said, “whaaa, no, but why the fuck would you want to watch it again?” “No, but it was really strange, because I really loved it, but I want to see it again, because, I mean normally when you watch a film it’s like there’s somebody on your shoulder that tells you, OK, now you’re crying, now you laugh, and now you look at this and now you look at that, and there I could just watch whatever I wanted and I could just be me.”

Severine Jonckeere and Luc Chessel in “Milla”

I recently saw Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985) as a slide show, and the awareness of the passage of time is something that really stood out to me in a way that it hadn’t when it was just still photographs. This movie begins with Milla and Leo as these two people who have almost nothing except each other — the opening shot, with them sleeping in the car, it’s as if they’re waking up like newborns in Eden or something. They have no past and no possessions. It’s interesting — your character has this amazing room with all of these photos and heavy furniture… The music box at the end, the last sound we hear at the end, is your character’s music box, is that right?

Yeah.

That struck me as a really interesting choice, it seemed to suggest to me that over the course of the film, these moments that Milla lives through sort of accumulate into… a life.

Of course. You’re very perceptive. [Both laugh] No, of course. These two women are the same. The first sequence in the hotel, which is the corridor, and I come in with the trolley — because the ellipses in the film are so big, a lot of people that don’t know me physically think, oh, it’s Milla but much older. And then they realize it’s not. And all this accumulation of objects and pictures and records and books and things is what you get through life, because you start with nothing, and eventually, even if you’re not bourgeois, you accumulate shit. [Laughs] All these are from my house, they’re really my objects.

So am I right in thinking that when we hear the music box at the end, that that’s sort of a hopeful sound — that it’s a promise to Milla that her life is as real as your furniture and pictures?

Absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. You’re the only person who got it — or who actually said it. I feel less lonely tonight.

As part of New Directors/New Films, Milla plays in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art on April 1 and at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 2.  

About The Author

Mark Asch

Mark Asch has edited the film section of The L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine, taught in the English Department at the University of Iceland, and written about movies for Reverse Shot, Film Comment, Little White Lies, the Reykjavík Grapevine, and elsewhere.

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