Milla ★★★★½

We live in an era of bold, largely unexplored new possibilities in technology and perspective in filmmaking that should make this a critical age of cinema, yet so often it seems that even the best films from a given year only prod at long-entrenched boundaries. Milla is one of those movies that feels thrillingly new, something that defies usual critical structures of referential allusion by existing well outside potential peers. It first two shots, the first of a gossamer-silky tableau of two young lovers entwined against some woods, a vividly Romantic sketch then immediately grounded by a follow-up shot of the same action that reveals its hazy filter to have been a car’s fogged rear window, and the painterly is swapped for the harshly real. The film never settles from there, studiously ducking neorealist tropes in its depiction of poverty while similarly curving around the more abstract renditions of it by someone like, say, Pedro Costa (arguably the closest, still vastly distant analog for what Massadian is doing).

Massadian treats poverty with a matter-of-factness that ironically transcends realism, so effortlessly grounding its characters as to dissolve separations between viewer and figure, exposing the labored artifices of even the boldest realist works. She captures the love between Milla and Leo not in its passions but in the more meaningful displays of closeness in actual couples, of the ambient comfort they find in each other rather than inflated displays of devotion. That makes the second half of the film, in which Milla is left alone and, eventually, with a child, all the more heartrending for the numbed state with which Massadian films emotional fallout. This is a film that denies catharsis, instead homing in on the way that grief is, in its own way, a luxury not afforded to the poor, who must struggle even harder to get by when alone.

Through it all, Massadian manages to compose with intricate blocking without ever sucking the air out of a frame, and she comes up with vivid images that pulse in the memory: sunlight splashing against deep red curtains that lend a womb-like sense of security to Milla’s bedroom, or a strange musical interlude in which the camera slowly pans away from Milla while cleaning a hotel to light first upon the shadow of a guitarist and then the man and a singer as their passionate rehearsal is viewed in full, respectful stillness, a break in routine so striking that the objective view of the camera and Milla’s own perspective collapse into each other in a joint expression of surprise. The final bit of the film, of Milla interacting with her child, is motherhood freed of all metaphorical or psychological projection, instead finding the simple profundity of teaching a new human being the basics of expression and watching a child start to grasp concepts for perhaps the first time. It’s mesmerizing because it exists unto itself, just like everything else in the film, a radical display of existence that says so much because nothing is said on its behalf.