Milla (Valerie Massadian, 2017)

by Andreea Patru

Some films from this year’s Locarno Film Festival deal with motherhood on different levels, like an adjustment to a new lifestyle as it happens in Milla (Valerie Massadian), or where the condition of being a mother seems to have sucked the life out of a woman as in Scary Mother (Ana Urushadze) and Freiheit (Jan Speckenbach). All the three films have in common a feminist approach that questions the Victorian ideas of motherhood as the heart of a balanced domestic life, nurturing their families without concern for their own needs or desires. Although in all cases the action takes place in a contemporary setting, the films question a shared stereotype, that of an idealized nature of the maternal instincts and duties as if being a mother should be the greatest achievement for a women regardless her professional life and goals. A mother’s love is endless. A mother’s love is unconditional. Or even better, a mother would always put her children’s needs before her.

Envisioning the woman like this vessel of endless affection and care makes a mother leaving her family even more unthinkable than a father doing so. The films in question challenge the double standards and status-quo by focusing on feminity first. In Jan Spekenbach’s Freiheit, Nora, the successful lawyer and mother of two, leaves her apparently perfect family life without notice. After wandering the streets of Vienna and consuming casual sex with a younger man, Nora finds her place crossing the Danube to Slovakia, settling for an unpretentious life as a maid and befriending a stripper single mother. Furthermore, in the Georgian Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother the protagonist is the older housewife Manana, who decides to concentrate on her hobby and writes a novel. Although her children and husband seem to support her, she is missed at her casual duties as everyone in the family expects the end of this whim. When time comes and she reads her draft to her family, the juxtaposition of her scandalous fiction with her real life determines her family to distance from her as she decides to move out from home for a freer environment. For both adult women the escape from home is a necessary stage to achieve abstract things that their family environment suppresses. Another movie that deals with the challenges of being a woman is Valerie Massadian’s Milla, which focuses on a young reckless couple and a girl’s harsh path to maturity.

Freiheit (Jan Speckenbach, 2017)

In Freiheit the protagonist is supposed to look for a loosely defined freedom, maybe freedom from an intoxicating unfulfilling environment or simply from herself. The German director doesn’t tell much about Nora’s motivations, nor does he justify her actions, but prefers to respect her decision and show her muted agony in the family. As the story unfolds, Nora seems to be driven by an urge to get away from a golden cage where she is imprisoned by a false and superficial affection. The director oscillates between two perspectives, although giving priority to Nora who leaves, and her husband, who remains taking care of the children. This switch, contrary to the common gender roles, seems to pressure her husband, Philip, who now not only has to deal with being the provider and has some ethical work issues, but also with being the only caring parent. Nora doesn’t leave him for another man like an irresponsible Anna Karenina, her emancipation doesn’t consist in the freedom to screw whomever she wants like men do, although it’s not an experience she would refuse, but because of her need to find herself. Like Nora, Manana, the Scary Mother protagonist, does something inconceivable: she puts herself first and against husband’s interdiction, she dedicates entirely to writing. In both cases, the freedom lies in a responsibility towards oneself that is higher than motherly duties. Moreover, Nora doesn’t even justify herself, she just vanishes from the lives of her loved ones and re-invents herself with an entirely new identity; she changes country, job, hairdo and even nationality.

Manana doesn’t go through such radical changes, yet her transformation after leaving her family is psychologically visible. In her case motherhood is a prison that limits her ambition and talent. Even from the first frames we can see her sneaking into her own home, like a tolerated presence, more like a maid than an equal family member. She secretly cleans up and always interacts with her family with a defeated bowed posture, as is she were guilty for not being selfless enough. When she finally reads to her family the draft of her novel, she does it without a pause, without intonation and again, without eye-contact, as if to diminish the harshness of her written words. The scene is symmetrical, depicted with a fixed shot in which Manana is talking on fast-forward in the middle of her stupefied family. The similitude between her literary persona who is overwhelmed by domestic chores and prosaic family duties and the real Manana is too much for her family. Her writing is tolerated only if it supports the idea of motherhood as a blessing. As soon as Manana shows dissatisfaction with her life and her writing interferes with her obligations, her husband feels threatened by her emancipation.

Scary Mother (Ana Urushadze, 2017)

It is interesting how even the architecture supports the protagonist’s condition of being trapped in an ivory tower, with connected concrete socialist blocks shot from low angles. Shot from below, her apartment situated in one of these blocks looks both menacing and exposed: you can see and can be seen from there. This is probably why her husband Anri prefers to maintain the appearances and celebrate her birthday as if she was still living with the family or insists on her returning home. In this regard, the husbands from both films are somewhat alike; Anri poses as if he supports Manana, giving up their room for her to write, yet imposing his sexist attitude towards her and Philip acts like a victim asking on TV for Nora to return while screwing her friend. Jan Speckenbach cleverly develops Philip’s character as well, who isn’t only the source of Nora’s leaving, but also the victim. The director uses an intelligent storytelling device by splitting his film in three, with the first part being Nora leaving and the second one focusing on what’s left and finally exposing in a non-chronological matter the episode that supposedly determined Nora’s departure.

It’s ironical how in Freiheit Nora’s freedom means the lack of it for her husband, yet her cathartic journey serves to transform the entire family. Her itinerary has a meaningful interpretation for each of the characters. In Scary Mother the family aspect seems a bit underdeveloped, yet from the couple’s interaction we can see a husband that imposes patriarchal values of womanhood and ideals of feminity on his wife. He asks her to put on form-fitting clothes because to him, that’s what being a woman implies, to sexually and domestically please a man. He gives freedom to his wife in his own terms: she’s allowed to write, but she doesn’t have freedom of speech as soon as her fiction intertwines with the dark side of their reality. Like in Freiheit, the quest for oneself, be it through travelling and trying on a new identity, being an escape in a fictional world like it is for Manana, is an overpowering experience that can’t co-exist with family life.

Manana’s fears are visually sustained by the contrast between the cold social realism and the strikingly red interior where she moves in to create after abandoning her family. This is probably an obvious metaphor of blood and sacrifice as much as pulsating life, as the authorship experience is in a way similar to giving birth. Her repressed traumas come to surface as she fears turning into a mythical creature from the Philippines called Manananggal, a female bloodthirsty monster that attacks pregnant women and eats their foetuses, an evident metaphor for her draining family life.

Milla (Valerie Massadian, 2017)

On the other hand, for Milla, the protagonist of Valerie Massadian’s film, motherhood isn’t such a traumatic experience, although she is too young to become a mother. Milla and her boyfriend Leo are a young couple occupying abandoned houses and living at the margins of society. The career perspectives are discouraging for both of them as they seem to be inexperienced and without degrees. The focus is on their playful innocent love story relying on each other to survive until they are separated by an accident that turns Milla into a single mother. Closer to Dardernne’s brothers’ aesthetics, as it happens in L’enfant, young ordinary people without means become accidental parents and struggle to raise a baby. Without pushing the story to the extreme, the director focuses on the growing process of this young lady, who instead of  focusing on education and youthful fun has to assume the responsibilities of an adult. With more of a contemplative style with very little dialogue, the strength of this work shines in the great acting and the film’s mise-en-scene. All the compositions are very well-thought, with the environment embracing Milla’s struggle through natural-lit fixed shots. The cinematography is almost like an art piece. Like in an installation there are different components such as this naturalistic scenes alternated with live music performances reminding of the French Nouvelle Vague and poetry recited in front of the camera. In Milla’s case, this sudden absurd moments of live music voice out her repressed feelings of helplessness as a young and brave precocious mother. It is a live interpretation of the punk Violent Femmes “Add it up” the one that expresses the possible frustrations, longings and repressed anger of this young lady. Her solitude is completed by contrasting melancholy with her opposing energy that drives her to succeed, “to float and not sink”, as her boyfriend Leo predicted.

The sound plays an important role in all three features, while its function is very different. If Milla either listens to music reminding her of happy times, or listens it as to soothe her pain, in Freiheit/Freedom the chosen baroque piece of opera amplifies the feeling of the character’s satisfaction with her bold decision. Scary Mother is accompanied by amplified weird sounds inner to Manana’s irrational universe accelerating the story’s suspense and ambiguity.

While the style is very distinctive and authorship marks can be identified in each of the three movies, with contemporary motherhood it is hard to differentiate freedom from infatuation, madness from liberation and pure love from duty. The selection is about overcoming oppression that comes from social statuses and identifying with society’s codes not because one has to, but because it suits them. In the end Milla is an early mother because she wants to, Manana stands up for her dream and doesn’t allow her family to diminish her, and Nora takes the time to decide the future of her family like a man. That’s a brave bunch out there defying the archetypal mother.