Milla ★★★★

In her introduction to Milla at its screening in Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films series, Valerie Massadian referenced the concerns of French critics at the dawn of the sound era who thought that the change would lead to films over-explaining through dialogue and audiences forgetting "how to watch." After implying her agreement with this idea, she urged us to take it into consideration when watching her film. It was a fitting statement of purpose for the film, which speaks through composition, gestures and the simple act of watching its characters as much as much as anything from the silent era. Visually conveyed though it is in precise and expressive images, Massadian's film takes on a naturalism through this act of watching that instills its eponymous protagonist's struggles with a singular sense of purity and truth.

Milla is essentially a film of two halves, the first following the title character and her boyfriend Leo's impoverished existence. Their relationship, by turns contentious and blissful, is presented almost entirely through long single takes, usually devoid of camera movement. The resultant sense of stasis is entirely appropriate for characters who, despite their playfulness, are essentially trapped within the frames Massadian places them inside. The patiently observant rhythm of the film is occasionally pierced by a series of striking interludes, each reshaping our context for the lives we're seeing play out. Inevitably, through a mixture of material circumstance and emotional distance, Milla and Leo's relationship dissolves, but not until we learn of Milla's pregnancy.

The second half will likely divide viewers even more than the first- detailing Milla's supporting of and caring for her son, it supplies a heavy dose of childhood cutesiness that a lesser film could simply coast on. Massadian isn't content with that, however- her film is a complete, if often light-hearted, portrayal of the realities of single motherhood. As we get a fuller picture of Milla's life, her quiet resilience and strength come to the fore without ever being purposely underlined. And despite the ostensibly happy and stable conditions these scenes find her in, the gentle sense of regret and loss that eats at Milla continues to seep through the cracks of her life (one unforgettable shot is one of the most elegant portrayals of pining for a significant other I've seen).

The legacy of Chantal Akerman seems to have a torch-bearer in Massadian- the late, great Belgian filmmaker's masterful use of duration, rigorous feminist analysis and understated style are all on display here. Milla may not be a perfect film- it slips into emotional vagueness at times, and it never fully fleshes out its ideas about contemporary poverty and its specific implications for women- but it still establishes Massadian as an important voice in French cinema. At a time when so much of European arthouse realism seems stiflingly bland, Milla finds a way to be deeply authentic while still finding a unique and engaging aesthetic. The ending gracefully underlines what's been conveyed throughout- though she may have been trapped before, Milla's story is now one that exists far beyond the limits of her portrayal here.