The people in Mia Hansen-Løve’s movies always struggle with change — specifically, with those bittersweet moments between major life events, which percolate with the sadness of uncertainty and the romance of something new. In “Father of My Children,” a family is dissolved by a sudden death that forces them to reconstitute who they are. In “Eden,” an aspiring French DJ fritters away the best 20 years of his life before coming to grips with the fact that he’ll never be Daft Punk. And in the extraordinary “Things to Come,” a middle-aged professor is burdened with the full weight of a newfound freedom after her husband leaves her for a younger woman.
Change, it seems, is the only constant in Hansen-Løve’s remarkable and constantly surprising body of work, which has already confirmed the 37-year-old filmmaker as one of modern cinema’s most brilliant new voices. But change, in her movies, has never been as much of a closed loop as it in “Maya,” another of the writer-director’s beguiling character studies about a life in transition, and yet the first to focus on someone hoping to resurrect who they were rather than be reborn as someone new.
In some ways, it’s the softest and most subtle of her six features. In others, it’s the most violent and stubborn of the lot, stunted in many of the same places where her previous stuff flowed like river water. But if “Maya” isn’t the best of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, there’s a wayward urgency to the whole thing that makes it feel like it might have been a necessary one for her to make.
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An elliptical story of self-rediscovery and the strangers who can make it possible for us, “Maya” begins in a Middle Eastern hotel bathroom, where a withdrawn French war reporter named Gabriel (the handsome, bird-like Roman Kolinka) tries to wash himself clean of the four months he’s spent as an ISIS hostage in Syria. The massive bruise on his back is our only indication of the ordeal he’s just survived. Gabriel and his older colleague Frédéric (the great Alex Descas) receive a hero’s welcome when they return to Paris — Gabriel’s ex-girlfriend even reconsiders their split — but both of them are plagued by guilt for the photographer they left behind, and neither are comfortable with their newfound celebrity status.
Lucky for Gabriel, he has a perfect getaway: The seaside Indian state of Goa, where he grew up as a kid. Nobody really knows him there — only his godfather, Monty (Pathy Aiyar), and Monty’s curious and unformed daughter, Maya (luminous first-time actor Aarshi Banerjee), who was just a kid the last time Gabriel was there. Now Gabriel is 32, and Maya is… not. But something sparks between these two characters, one who is retreating from the world, and the other who he is preparing to fling herself into it.
Perhaps the bond between them is platonic, the result of a mutual rootlessness that helps them give direction to each other. The cold sensitivity of Hansen–Løve’s direction, which isn’t the least bit lecherous for a movie about a teenage girl helping a fully grown man to get back on his feet, helps afford Gabriele the benefit of the doubt. He and Maya speak to each other in broken, affectless English, the awkwardness of their scenes together offset by the feeling that neither of them are where they’re supposed to be.
Or perhaps what’s simmering between them is as obvious and undeniable as it seems; for all of the poetry she teases from the push and pull of daily life, Hansen-Løve is nothing if not a realist. While the gorgeous, sun-baked Indian locations (and the colonial overtones of wending a white man through them) might evoke memories of Jean Renoir’s “The River,” this film is far more indebted to the carnal reveries of Eric Rohmer’s later work, in large part because Banerjee’s direct and stoically disaffected performance aches with the same vulnerability that made so many of Rohmer’s headstrong characters feel both exposed and inaccessible at the same time.
Gabriele’s repeated attempts to defuse the sexual tension between he and Maya — he wonders aloud if the girl’s parents mind them spending so much time together, and insists they stay in separate rooms during an impromptu trip to an ancient town — only serve to affirm the energy that’s bubbling between them. If it’s true that “Goa has become one big film studio,” as one of the characters observes of the tourist-ridden paradise, then perhaps it’s only natural that Gabriele and Maya are pulled into the motions of a movie-script romance.
But Hansen-Løve is most compelled by Goa as an unsettled place that’s suspended between the old world and the new. It’s traditional and touristy; obviously both and somehow also neither. Even the locals seem to feel like they’re just passing through. When Gabriele comes across his condemned childhood home, he walks through the empty house like he’s visiting a forgotten alien world.
And in the film’s most telling scene, Gabriele is interrogated by a policeman who’s curious about why the landowner is carrying a knife. “I always have a knife with me when I’m traveling,” he says. “But you’re not traveling,” the cop replies. Gabriele has no response to that. Maybe you always feel like a traveler when you’re not where you belong, or not doing whatever it is that you’re supposed to be doing (for what it’s worth, the cop’s remark inspires a playful montage where Gabriele does go traveling, and it’s one of the loosest and most engaging sequences Hansen–Løve has ever shot).
Gabriele belongs in a war zone, where he can report on the horrors around him and feel useful as a result of his work. As ever, Hansen-Løve is enamored by the power of vocation, and the intrinsic sense of purpose that comes with it. And for all of the warmth that the earnest and naïve Maya brings into Gabriele’s life, the film never gives us the impression that either one of them is making the other happy, or that they’re even really there together at all.
There’s a stilted quality to this low-key may-be love story, and not even the director’s intimidatingly cool mix of Indian and Euro pop soundtrack cues can settle these characters into a comfortable groove. Freedom is a beautiful thing, but a lack of direction can make every new path feel like a dead end. “Maya” is an off-kilter experience that never allows you to get settled, but it sinks deep under your skin because of how adamantly it refuses to get stuck in place. Whatever inspired Hansen-Løve to make it, she had to get it out of her system before it paralyzed her next stop, and forced her infinite potential to rot into rootlessness. Whether or not it works for you, the movie leaves you confident that it definitely worked for her.
“Maya” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.