Close-Up on Léa Mysius's "Ava"

When a film begins as confidently as this feature debut, you can relax, secure in the knowledge that the director knows what she's doing.
Mike D'Angelo
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Léa Mysius' Ava (2017), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from December 22, 2017 - January 21, 2018 as a Special Discovery.
Léa Mysius opens her debut feature, Ava, with a medium-distance shot of a crowded beach in the southwest of France. Initially, there's no focal point—the camera just takes in a sprawling mass of people, sunning themselves on the sand and splashing in the water. The composition as a whole, however, grabs the eye far more aggressively than does your average establishing shot. Mysius has chosen a section of beach with two parallel horizontal planes: the actual shoreline, where sea meets land, and an artificial shoreline made up of large rocks, maybe 10 or 15 yards into the ocean. A curved stone footpath connects the two. Within this layered landscape, dozens of beachgoers have been arranged in a way that somehow looks both totally natural and uncannily pleasing. The effect is so perfectly realized that when a large black dog wanders into the frame, its path through the bodies immediately draws your attention, even though the animal's movements compete with plenty of other activity (including a beach ball that's being tossed around). A cut to the dog, still on the move, rewards this assumption; several shots later, Lupo, as he'll soon be named, leads us to 13-year-old Ava (Noée Abita), announcing her as a subject of interest.
When a film begins this confidently, the discerning cinephile can relax, secure in the knowledge that the director knows what she's doing. Ava is a fairly typical coming-of-age story in most respects, exploring familiar currents of teenage insecurity and rebellion. Puberty has arrived, and Ava's feelings about her sexuality are mightily influenced by the behavior of her young single mother, Maud (Laure Calamy), who regularly flirts with men closer to Ava's age than to her own. There's also a boy, Juan (Juan Cano), with whom she becomes involved after she steals Lupo from him. The film's sole story "hook" is that Ava suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that's causing her to gradually lose sight in a sizable percentage of her visual field. Remarkably, Mysius doesn't use this condition as an excuse to play around with focus, or otherwise attempt to simulate Ava's restricted view of the world. Instead, it becomes just one more aspect of this young girl's confusion and determination, no more or less significant than the others. She prepares herself for what's to come by walking around with a blindfold on, as if resigned to her fate. 
Much like Arnaud Desplechin (with whom she collaborated on the screenplay for his most recent film, Ismael's Ghosts), Mysius shows little interest in tonal consistency, happily shifting into whatever gear feels right for the moment at hand. When Maud asks Ava to hold off on having sex until she's older—even though, or because, Maud lost her own virginity at 13—Ava works so hard to ignore her mother's frank entreaties, covering her ears and looking at the ground, that she walks straight into a stop sign. It takes a sure hand to get laughs while simultaneously foreshadowing a terrible loss. Similarly, a scene that begins as courageous liberation, with Ava walking into the ocean naked save for her blindfold, takes an abrupt turn into sublime silliness when she realizes that Juan is spying on her from the shore. Mortified, she dives into the surf, only to be left lying exposed again when the tide immediately rolls out. A bit later, these two young rebels have "gone native"—painted themselves in mud, dressed themselves up in twigs— and are robbing sunbathers at gunpoint, accompanied by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Mysius refuses to let the movie settle into any one particular groove, reinventing it on a scene-by-scene basis.  
That's a risky approach, and it doesn't always pan out (not even for Desplechin). Ava loses its way toward the end, moving into lovers-on-the-lam territory so played out that even a detour into the Roma community, from which Juan hails, can’t make it seem fresh or distinctive.. Even then, though, Mysius tosses in stray elements that enrich the world she's created (a minor character who shows up wearing a wedding dress suggests an entirely separate movie unfolding just outside of the frame), and remains entirely in command of the film's visual scheme. At one point, the screen is enveloped in darkness, which is then illuminated a pinprick of light that grows, splits, and is eventually revealed as automobile headlights approaching from a distance. It's a stunning shot that also represents what's happening to Ava's visual field—but metaphorically, not via some cute gimmick. Like the film's opening shot, it's been conceived with an artist's understanding of how to balance the arresting and the mundane. This is what a first film is supposed to instill: a sense of trust. "I may not be fully sold on this particular destination," one thinks, "but I'd follow this director anywhere."


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