People Should Be Taken Care Of: Valérie Massadian Discusses "Milla"

An interview with the French director of the prize-winning drama of a poor 17-year-old girl who has to mature faster than nature intended.
Matt Turner

Valérie Massadian. Photo by Locarno Festival | Marco Abram.

Six years ago, Valérie Massadian won the Opera Prima, the Locarno Festival’s first feature prize, for Nana, a great film that has since developed a small but deeply impassioned following. She returned to the festival this year with Milla and received another award, the Special Jury Prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition. Simultaneously tender and brutal, in the film 17-year-old Milla (Séverine Jonckeere) runs away with Leo (Luc Chessel) before a series of incidents cause her to mature faster than nature had intended and make the uneasy transition from childhood to motherhood. 

We sat in a shady courtyard in Locarno to speak with Massadian about Milla and how it relates to, and expands upon, the project she undertook with Nana, as well as what it means to make films with and about young women. This transcription may give an indication of her demeanor, but what it fails to convey is the infectiousness of her warm, hearty laugh or the points where the tone of her voice cracked, where the depth of her emotions broke her tough exterior. 

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about the origin of this project and how it relates to Nana

VALERIE MASSADIAN: I know I have three films to do; I’ll probably make more, but I need to do these three. They’re about girls at in-between ages. The first was Nana, which is about a girl who is four years old, an age where the child is not domesticated yet, who is before desire, seduction and the need for love has arrived. I want to do another film, which I’ve written already, about a girl who is eleven or twelve, when you suddenly have a body and a sexuality that you don’t know what to do with. Then I wanted to do one about a teenage mother.  I did Nana, about the four-year-old, and then I started the casting for the next film, about the eleven-year-old. I met a lot of cool girls, great, erotic psychopaths, beautiful girls. But I realized that the reality was that I wanted to wait for Kelyna, the little girl in Nana, to grow up, as it would be more beautiful to do it with her later.

NOTEBOOK: She must be nine now?

MASSADIAN: She’s ten and a half. Voila, I waited. Anyway, once I decided to start the film about the young mother, I went up north to look for locations, because nature is important to me. I wanted something with the ocean. There is Brittany that I know really well. Brittany is harsh and Shakespearean. The rocks are harsh and mean. It can be too tragic, and I wanted something rounder. One day I was reading something. You know Trauner?

NOTEBOOK: No, I don’t.

MASSADIAN: [Alexandre] Trauner was a hero of mine. He was a Jewish-Hungarian set designer who managed to survive the Second World War. He worked with everybody, and did incredible things with nothing. I was looking him up, and I saw that he and this French poet, [Jacques] Prévert, spent the last 15 years of their lives in the same small village, Omonville-La-Petite, and their families were buried next to each other. I thought, these two motherfuckers have really good taste, so I went there to look, and it was exactly what I needed, so I decided to do it there. Also, the north of France is getting very poor, even if we are being told otherwise. The whole of France is bad, but the north is the worst. The north has nothing anymore, no industry, nothing. I went to Cherbourg because I had already shot Nana there, and I went to every women’s shelter in the area and eventually did casting. I met 30 young mothers, and chose her [Séverine Jonckeere].

NOTEBOOK: You knew it was her? She stood out amongst them all?

MASSADIAN: It was really clear. To me, she has a body that is everything but bourgeois. She is earthly, and though I hate to use the word, she has a proletarian body, a real body of a real person. You don’t see that so much. She’s both very pretty but not pretty. She was raised with too much milk. Also, because she has this body which is ‘in-between,’ she’s not a little girl but she retains some of those features.

NOTEBOOK: This seems very consciously a working class film, and I wanted to ask if it was your intention to make it this way—maybe even as a response to many other films that are not depicting this sort of situation?

MASSADIAN: It’s where I’m from, so I do what I know. Also, because I don’t work with actors, I work with people. So as with Kalyna in Nana, it is Séverine’s gestures, her mannerisms, her body, her way of talking that informs the character. Even if Séverine is not Milla, it’s important to me that the essence remains. I’m not doing social or political films, but it’s there, that’s where they belong. It’s not in your face and I don’t have anything to explain to you, but it’s there and either you know or you don’t. The people that know, know, and the others? Fuck them, basically. I don’t give a shit.


NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a little about how you worked with the (non) actors? What did Séverine bring to the character of Milla?

MASSADIAN: It was much easier in Nana, with Kelyna, because she was a kid, and she understood immediately what she could take. She had a territory that was hers, so it became a game between us, so when she played, she didn’t play like an actress would play, but she played with me. She wasn’t conscious in the way a seventeen-year-old girl is, thinking about how people are thinking about herself. A seventeen-year-old does, a lot, especially when you are from this sort of place where you are judged on an everyday basis. You’re judged without words, because she had bleached hair, because she had a kid, and so on. So, with a seventeen-year-old, it was different. I spent a lot of time with her, until I knew her. For instance, I knew she didn’t know how to tidy her room. Her house was a mess—I filmed it, but I didn’t show it, because I wanted to do something really caring and tender. But she’s a mess, so I knew that if I asked her to fold clothes or do the dishes, things she wasn’t used to, she would be concentrated. It’s like Bresson said, if you want something real, film someone opening and closing a window and you already have the person there in that act. The concentration on the process removes the awareness of the camera. The whole film is built on the editing table, I’m not following a script. I know what I’m looking for, and I’m the only one who knows; I don’t tell them. I just give them a situation, and from there, like in music, they deviate and do what they’re going to do. If you take each sequence, you can see two or three movements in each which you need to find.

NOTEBOOK: But you don’t tell them when it’s working, when you like it? You just let them go, and find out later? 

MASSADIAN: I never stop them. I think an idea doesn’t make a film, it never has and never will. Also, because I’m not cutting into the small sequences, I have time. I build a small theatre where they can play. Whatever idea I have is just going to be an idea, and when I feel that accidents occur, life takes over. Sometimes it’s tacky and sometimes it’s pure grace. 

NOTEBOOK: How do you develop the mood the tone of the film? In both Nana and Milla, I felt so much warmth and tenderness. How do you generate the mood that you want?

MASSADIAN: In the image or the construction?

NOTEBOOK: In the image, in the moment?

MASSADIAN: With Nana, it’s very strange, because the reaction of children is the exact opposite to adults. Where adults see drama, tension, or something sad or hard, with children it is something else. I did a screening in a huge cinema filled with children aged between four and nine, and a few adults from their schools, and at the end, it was like all of the children had done cocaine. An adult asked a question, and this nine-year-old was like, “Are you stupid? Did you see the film? We’re not fragile little things. Who talks at the end of the film? It’s Nana and she asks her grandfather if he’s alright, so we’re okay!”  In Milla, you have extremely dramatic events, but they aren’t dramatic. You carry on and survive. It’s hard to live the life these people live in reality, so if you are going to take them with you on this adventure, you better appreciate it. So, you have to protect them, which is where the tenderness emerges. In some sequences in Milla, you could mock her, it could be nasty. But there was no way it was going to be that way in my film. You can laugh, but the laughter is tender. People should be taken care of.

NOTEBOOK: I think there are too many mean films.

MASSADIAN: Me too. I think it’s a matter of position. Somebody wrote something about Nana at the beginning, saying it’s an incredible film made by a director who is not a director. The idea of directing suggests some kind of superiority. I’m not above the people in my films, I’m there to serve them. It’s easier to be above everyone, and I don’t care for that. If I wanted to do that, I could just turn the camera on myself. If I make a film, it has to be for them. Every time I finish an edit, I cry like an idiot because I’m a girl, and then I think, “I didn’t fuck them up. I didn’t betray them.” That’s the most important thing, I make the film for them and if they feel proud and loved, then it will find its harmony in the world. People won’t always see it. It’s all small, it’s all in the gestures, but it’s all there.

NOTEBOOK: You said before that you are focusing on young women for now. I wanted to ask why this is, and also whether there is something specific that want to achieve for the women in the films. or those viewing them?

MASSADIAN: To me, filming is dancing with the other person. I want to dance with the people I want to dance with, and I want to dance with all these girls that are unsure about themselves, who are super strong but super fragile. I was there, but I have strength and some power, and I want to give it back. When I make a film, I want them to come out of this experience having grown and gained assurance in themselves, and I did. That’s why I say when I finish the films I know I didn’t betray them, and I know I’ve given something back, not just in the film but beyond it. That’s important to me, maybe it’s some motherly bullshit, but I do, I want to give it back. It changed Séverine’s life, and Kelyna’s too, and their relations to themselves and their own family. This is the thing. I know the resistance, I know the violence, and I understand it. But I don’t understand it intellectually. I’m not a fucking intellectual; I’m a fucking animal. I’m proud of being an animal, because I’ve been told all my fucking life that this is something that is lesser—but it’s not lesser, it’s different. My relation to the world is different, and I’m sorry, but that’s physiological. Yes, when I am in front of the Pinturas Negras in Madrid I can’t breathe and I start crying. Don’t ask me why, that’s how it is. It’s not a lesser understanding than that of someone who can tell me about Goya for half an hour, with all the historical information. That, I can look up afterwards. At least I fucking felt it, and I felt it in a way that has no words. I work with the girls because I don’t need words, and they don’t need words with me. They recognize, Séverine knew. Her real life is a nightmare beyond anything in the film, so to trust anybody is incredibly complicated, but now she does. So, I gave something back.

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