“He’s beautiful, this pig,” are the first words spoken by the precocious, titular four-year-old in Valérie Massadian’s debut, Nana. They’re uttered as Nana watches two men struggle to restrain a massive pig that they’re to kill with a bolt gun. She’s captivated and curious, giggly, and we are thrown into her everyday world on a pig farm. It’s unsettling until we realize that this is normal, and we shouldn’t be shocked by the ritual slaughter of a carnivorous dinner. The situation is only beguiling because it is foreign to most. Once we know where she is, we begin to understand.
Unless you were raised in a remote, rural locale, the French countryside where we find ourselves is unknown territory. Once the bloodletting ceases, we settle into a solitary existence with Nana (Kelyna Lecomte) and her mother (Marie Delmas), who live in a stone house nestled just outside of a haunting forest. Occasionally we are privy to their interactions — a moment of playfulness, a daily routine — but for the most part we have the great fortune to spend time with Nana. When her mother is away (and she usually is), Nana explores her universe. She reads aloud to herself, saying things like, “What a fucking mess,” as she fiddles with a puzzle, and at one point untangles the snare of a rudimentary trap and carries home a dead rabbit half her size. What she does with the rabbit later is nothing more than a learned behavior. Yet, as responsible adults, we have an urge to reach through the screen and protect her.
If we didn’t know there was a person behind the camera, we would believe we were examining Nana through a spyglass. She embodies the here and now. She is undisturbed by her spectator, only concerned with her present occupation. The trust between Massadian and Nana seems immutable. Throughout the film we must remind ourselves that Nana is not alone, and that this is actually a work of fiction. She acts like she is, always oblivious and filled with wonder. And we’re captivated because that curiosity and singularity of attention is only attainable during childhood. We are fascinated not only by her, but vicariously through her. Nana exists as a subject and an actress, and therein lies the quandary: the child and the performer cannot be extricated.
Massadian’s most enviable achievement is the alchemy of turning mundane scenes into extraordinary ones. Consider someone who films their child at play. It may be adorable to them, but it would be excruciating to watch for more than five minutes. Massadian, who has a background in still photography, is able to pull this off with minimal camera movement, extensive takes, and by allowing Nana to lead the action and use her own words. A dinner scene with Nana and her mother exemplifies this method. In a fixed shot, Nana doggedly works at a piece of meat as her mother restrains herself from helping. Nana’s persistence becomes our mutual focus, and they’re room magically becomes our room. Simply spellbinding.
Nana blurs the lines between truth and fiction so well I was convinced it was a documentary. It poignantly questions how we perceive ourselves when we knowingly become entertainment, asking: Can we ignore the camera and regress to childlike obliviousness? The short answer is no. But if reality television approached this kind of intimacy and innocence, I don’t think I would leave the house. I would be perfectly content to watch a dozen chapters.