Film Review: Nana

Tedious and slightly sickening, Valérie Massadian’s debut feature focuses on a child but is hardly a children’s movie.

Unlike a mainstream film, Nana reveals a more brutal and honest kind of life of a youngster. But there is a cost—for the viewer as well as the child. For instance, here is yet another art-house release showing the graphic killing of an animal. A concurrent French release, Hors Satan, features the murder of a deer. Even if one gets beyond the opening scene, the slaughter of a elderly pig, appreciating the “cycle of life” theme and pretty compositions becomes a challenge. Despite winning the prize for first film at the 2011 Locarno Film Festival, Nana may have trouble finding much of an audience.

For her first feature film, French photographer Valérie Massadian devised a simple narrative: a four-year-old farm girl, Nana (Kelyna Lecomte), witnesses the killing of a pig on her grandfather’s farm before her grandfather (Alain Sabras) allows her to play with some piglets. Later, Nana’s mother (Marie Delmas) takes her child home to a nearby farmhouse where they perform their daily activities—playing, reading, eating, bathing, and getting ready for bed. Suddenly, Nana’s mother leaves and Nana must survive on her own, acting out things her mentally imbalanced mother and other elders have said or told her. Through her monologues, we learn a bit about Nana’s family background before her mother reappears. Nana finally returns to her grandfather’s farm to be with him.

Though running just over an hour, Nana feels like a three-hour trial. Massadian shows off her gift for composition, mainly filming scenes in long-shot, though the distancing effect seems a bit inappropriate if the idea is to identify at all with our tiny protagonist. Actually, Nana evokes the Brechtian cool of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1966), with its slightly older title heroine. But Mouchette, which also has its disturbing moments, doesn’t sour as much in the memory.

Sadly, Massadian offers no discernable reason for dwelling on the pig slaughter in the opening scene (and the pig isn’t the only animal killed in the story); nor does there seem to be an adequate rationale for having young Lecomte recite the expletive-filled ramblings during her scenes when Nana is left to her own devices. All this viewer could think of was what Lecomte will think of herself (and the director and her own parents’ decision-making) when she becomes older and sees herself completely nude in the lengthy bathroom scene. I am sure Massadian didn’t intend to exploit her charge, but that’s the effect. Ironically, the mother’s lack of morality in abandoning Nana doesn’t seem quite as bad as Massadian’s own art-for-art’s-sake stunts. (The director claims all of Lecomte’s words were her own, which is a dubious defense.)

Yes, Nana depicts “innocence lost” in a bold, original way and anyone who sees the film will appreciate the young Lecomte’s performance. But do the ends justify the means?