It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Xin Yi Wang reviews Léa Mysius’s vivid cinematic bildungsroman in anticipation of tomorrow’s UK premiere.
Enriched with colours and saturation, Ava is as kinetic and full of energy as its images. An intensely strong directional debut from Léa Mysius, the film opens to big thematic questions about coming of age, female sexuality, and disability, but casting such a big net means it has problems creating resolution. Provocative and unsettling, the film comes with a simple premise: during a summer holiday, thirteen-year-old Ava (Noée Abita) discovers she has a disease that will slowly rob her of her sight. Along the way, she meets Juan (Juan Cano), who she becomes infatuated with.
What marks the loss of innocence? Does sex indicate maturity? It is often used in literature and art to indicate a coming of age, a rite of passage that somehow transitions a child into a young adult. Ava explores this territory in such a daring way it might be controversial to some, as our protagonist toys with her newfound sexual desires and attraction to an older man in complete frankness. The amount of nudity is perhaps meant to be uncomfortable – Abita was seventeen during filming, which is technically legal under French law, but the character is thirteen and one cannot help but feel they’re watching something close to child pornography.
Maybe that’s the point. Ava, despite her newfound sexuality and psychological complexity, is nonetheless still a child. The discomfort of teen nudity forces you to constantly regard her as a child. Her innocence shines through as she laughs and dances to a song. When forced to be a waitress, Ava blends in better with the group of children she’s serving. It is worth mentioning that, despite the seeming sexual maturity she has, Ava’s most mature action is a certain phone-call made in secret midway through the film.
In a particular sequence, she runs around topless with Juan, dressed like a tribal couple, and terrorizes beach visitors waving guns around while the soundtrack tries to convince audience that “she ain’t a child no more.” However, the costume and act of terrorising feels so much like a child’s play, down to the cutely painted stripes on the dog, that you confidently disagree with the lyrics. (It is interesting to note that these lyrics were the only English words present in the film, and perhaps achieve a different effect when playing to its French audience or other non-English-speaking cultures.) It suggests the truth to be opposite of Ava’s own mentality, that though there is a relationship between coming-of-age and sexuality, sex is definitely not a clear indication of adulthood.
Meanwhile, Mysius uses the disease of blindness to an effective but imbalanced degree. It works as the driving force and premise behind Ava’s struggles, fleshing her out as a character and not just another angsty teenage girl, but as the film progresses it takes a backseat where it should have been more forefront. In the first half, her battle with blindness is much clearer, and Mysius offers stand-out surreal sequences of nightmares and hypnotic imagery. The shift to focus more on Ava’s relationship with Juan reduces Ava to a more traditional coming-of-age film of the kind we’ve seen before. Though her struggles with blindness are not forgotten or cast aside, they play back into the third act – frustratingly, considering the potential – in a more minimal way than the set-up would suggest.
In general, the third act shows a drop in quality. The ending is suspiciously optimistic and prompts many questions about Ava’s fate. It works, but the film tries to tackle too much (including a forgettable point about fascism), and thus cannot offer a complete resolution, going into a direction that becomes literally greyer and duller than its vibrant beginnings.
Despite these issues, the film stands firm. The theme of blindness is complemented with a subtle staging of light and shadows, weaving into Ava’s experimentations and coming to terms with her sight and an impending darkness, along with motifs of blackness surrounding her. The heat of the summer and beach translate into striking shades of yellow, contrasting with the ever-blue sky that becomes melancholic once you realise that Ava is going to lose all these colours in her life. The cinematography is one to remember, and the film’s soundtrack works beautifully in to create an uneasy atmosphere throughout.
Noée Abita, a newcomer just like her director, is a delight. Standing out with a performance that etches into memory as she commands the film and character, she recalls Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional. Abita portrays adolescence as truthfully as she could, melting into a performance that showcases an understanding of rebellion, selfishness and a strong yearning of adulthood. Her single mother Maud, played by Laure Calamy, is another highlight of the film; her great chemistry with Abita showcases a raw bond between a mother and her rebellious daughter, and you wish to see more of her. Juan Cano works well, but unfortunately is the weakest of the main cast.
As a first feature, Ava is undoubtedly memorable, but though it completes a few fantastic flips it only somewhat sticks the landing.
Ava has its UK premiere on October 5th at London Film Festival. Watch the trailer below: