Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 07, 2019 11:29 am 
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A war correspondent, an ex-hostage released from Syria, spends time adrift in India

Shown in its New York premiere as one of the most anticipated films of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Mia Hansen-Løve's sixth film, Maya, like the others, focuses on a person dealing - or not - with a big change that takes a deep emotional and intellectual toll. Her films have frequently had a distinctive before-and-after structure. Her first, All Is Forgiven/Tout est pardonné, skips eleven years midway to an "after" period post drug rehabilitation and remarriage and a child's growing up. Father of My Children/Le père de mes enfants has a second half after the suicide of the father, a shattering loss for everyone, including the viewer. The director's previous film, Things to Come/L'avenir, deals with the aftermath of its philosophy teacher protagonist's abandonment by her husband and her publishers.

Maya, somewhat oddly named after its secondary character, is about the aftermath of trauma that we see only in the bruises on the protagonist's handsome body and an elaborate public and private reception of a heroic survivor - who, inevitably, suffers from survivor guilt. Gabriel (Roman Kolinka, by now a Hansen-Løve regular) is a French war correspondent who, after his return to France in a French government plane with fellow ex-prisoner and close comrade Frédéric (Alex Descas), winds up going back to India, where he grew up, to recover- or not - from the shock of his four months as a hostage in Syria. This trajectory is a considerable shift for Hansen-Løve herself, away from her native France, and Europe, and from French to mostly English dialogue.

When the film opens we see the bruises on Gabriel's back as he comes out of a shower in a Jordan hotel. There will be many hotel rooms, luxury or country style, and shots of Gabriel bathing or shaving or being shaved. As Gabriel and Frédéric return to France, notably missing for them is their photographer associate, still a prisoner, whose situation will not end well. The two men submit to heavy publicity and batteries of tests. Many reviewers refer to Alex as "the great Alex Descas"; and perhaps we do feel his greatness, from Claire Denis' films, but his character exists here simply as a warm, confident source of camaraderie for Gabriel whose energy never flags. He represents duty, and the calling. Literally so when later on he face-calls Gabriel from Istanbul, already back in action. Frédéric, anyway, seems fine when they first return to France. Gabriel also seems okay, and in a quick series of scenes, declares that he wants no therapy or book deal, just to get back to business.

But for Gabriel it's not going to be that easy. And having heard him questioned by a psychologist specialized in ex-prisoners, we know he admits to memories of physical and mental torture. He can't readjust to being in France, not to mention accept his ex girlfriend's offer of getting back together (she seems deluded by the emotion of the moment and the publicity). Instead, he goes off to India, where he grew up with his diplomat father and a mother who abandoned them, to see his godfather and visit a house in Goa that was left to him.

Whether or not this was the right decision we don't ever know. What Gabriel ultimately seems to need is simply to return to war, to the action. But so at least with India we have one of the kind of sudden, inexplicable shifts at which Hansen-Løve excels and which are her trademark. Ideally, the shift will leave us, the viewers, quietly devastated. But this time there are problems and, while as usual interesting, this is for various reasons not up to Hansen-Løve's best. War correspondents in fiction films make me uneasy (Matthew Heinemann's A Private War about Marie Colvin is an exception, but it's barely fiction). So do films in which the director is working in a foreign language. Maya is both. A recent example is Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs, set in the US with a war correspondent played by Isabelle Huppert, where that terrific filmmaker did less than his best work.

There is the further danger here that Hansen-Løve might be accused of a colonial, Disneyland-ish use of India. In part this is self-conscious. She has acknowledged a debt to Jean Renoir's The River. She has also said that after making Things to Come - she just needed to get away. What's more "away" than India?

There is also a problem with Roman Kolinka, the lead, who, somewhat like the setting, seems partly chosen as scenery. But unlike chaotic and colorful India, Kolinka, tall, handsome, well built (and we get repeated glances at his near-nude body), is recessive and opaque as an actor and personality. We can understand: Gabriel is repressing, shut down. But he is a void at the center of the action.

Gabriel is able revisit his family’s old house in Goa. He makes contact with godfather Monty (Pathy Aiya) and his college-age daughter, Maya (Aarshi Banerjee). He and Maya sense something in common, she having recently "escaped" from another European capital, London, where she was studying, but wasn't comfortable, to return to India, where she feels at home.

Hansen-Løve has acknowledged the "colonial" aspect of her film explicitly. Its travelogue aspect is painfully explicit, when first Monty and then Maya, with whom Gabriel will develop a bond and then a thing, stiffly lecture each other and the audience about Goa and its exploitation. This is a film that, given the filmmaker's justifiably high reputation among cinephiles and critics, has been reviewed extensively. I've read all the reviews I could find on line and via Metacritic. The comment is almost universal: it's all too evident here that English is not Hansen-Løve's first language, nor that of her protagonist or most of the characters who come and go in the movie. The English dialogue is resultingly not only wooden or tinny, but sometimes simply incomprehensible. (French viewers can at least escape from the second issue by watching the film with French subtitles.)

Gabriel and Maya contrive to go traveling together, and for quite a while this relationship seems comfortably platonic. Finally Maya is lying cuddled against Gabriel and when he tells her it's time to go to her room, she wittily utters, dramatically spaced apart, what she has earlier announced are the two only French words she knows: first "Oo-la-la!" (wow!) and then (as she heads out the door) "Degueulasse!" (disgusting!). This seemed to me
- tellingly - Maya's best moment, the one when she most clearly illustrates reviewers' claims that she and debut actress Aarshee Banerjee are smart, as well as naive. Her smartness is often masked by wooden delivery of lines. Her only two French ones sparkle.

My worst fear was that the movie would eventually just turn into a travelogue, and it does, with a thirty-something romancing a teenager, as Gabriel voyages across India (with a lightweight team of Hansen-Løve and her dp Helène Louvart using Super16 instead of the Kodak 35mm she shoots on in the rest of the film) enroute to Mombai to be reunited with his mother (Johanna Ter Steege). It somewhat mystifies me why critics find the travel portion such a highlight, but certainly the film's most moving segment is the ultimately unsuccessful reunion, with the camera memorably following the mother away in her Tata car beyond the normal "goodbye" end point, showing her weeping alone behind the wheel, a moment that shows Hansen-Løve's gift for the unexpected emotionally devastating moment. This is still a great filmmaker. Nonetheless Kate Taylor of Globe & Mail hit home when she wrote, " it’s never clear why being the object of a youthful crush might be a good cure for PTSD."

Maya, 107 mins., debuted at Toronto, and listed in 13 festivals on IMDb including also London, AFI, and Gothenburg. French theatrical release 19 Dec. 2018, AlloCiné press rating only 3.3 (27 reviews); high ratings from some sophisticated reviews such as Les Inrocks and Cahiers,. Screened for this review as part of the UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Mar. 2019.

Rendez-Vous Showtimes
Wednesday, March 6, 6:00 PM
Thursday, March 7, 2:00pm

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