Valerie Massadian, Nana, 2011, 35 mm, color, sound, 68 minutes. Nana (Kelyna Lecomte).

NANA BEGINS with a long shot of a farmer killing a large pig as a few people, including his granddaughter, look on. A medium close-up shows the pig being bled, the ordinariness of the act treated with a blunt simplicity characteristic of the film’s style. For the next twenty minutes of this beautifully photographed, stark but lyrical debut feature, we watch Nana—somewhere between age four and five—setting traps with her grandfather, gathering firewood, playing with her mother, and listening to a rather gruesome bedtime story. Life is simple, mother-daughter affections seem genuine, although some unspecified contention is hinted at between the grandfather and his daughter. Then, without warning or explanation, mother walks into the distance and disappears.

We wonder what has happened, and worry about the child left behind, but for the next twenty minutes, the unflustered Nana dresses and feeds herself, gathers wood, makes fires, even reads herself the same bedtime story—all with remarkable, if unnerving self-sufficiency. To see her free a dead rabbit from a trap, carry it home, wrap it in dry weeds, and toss it on the fire is to realize just how attuned she seems to the natural cycle of life and death. When her mother returns only to die inexplicably, Nana drags her body over the ground with the same unblinking demeanor. In the final scene, her grandfather closes up the daughter’s house and takes Nana home with him.

The naturalistic aura, character typology, and setting evoke a nineteenth-century French novel, but Nana has nothing resembling the densely packed narrative of societal problems typical of Émile Zola. Unless we choose to willfully read into the thinly connected tissue of its events, the film is as blithely indifferent to social, dramatic, and psychological concerns as it is free of sentimentality. It addresses us purely as cinema, allowing physical acts and the locations where they occur to speak for themselves. In that sense, it offers us the world as Nana herself must experience it.

Still, we wonder. Why does Nana’s mother leave an angry note about her father’s failure to complete a fence? If she is concerned about Nana’s safety, why does she abandon her? Where has she gone and for how long? From what ailment does she suffer? Where is Nana’s father? From whom did Nana learn the vulgar language that comes to her lips so easily?

To leave such questions suspended seems to be the filmmaker’s way of leaving the viewer as adrift as the protagonist. While the film celebrates a child’s endurance and survival skills, it also restricts its compass to her outward behavior. Refusing to provide fuller exposition and psychology, director Valerie Massadian documents Nana’s external existence, drawing a line between that and how she incorporates everything into her inner world.

The word minimalism too easily comes to mind in the face of such a work, but here it is less a formal choice than a recognition of the boundaries beyond which one cannot enter a child’s consciousness. If we believe Massadian that she “did not impose any word or gesture” on her actress, we might almost conclude that the central portion of the film is a passage of cinema vérité, to which the filmmaker has attached a titillating beginning and quasi-tragic end. However we read it, Nana is a genuine curiosity that deserves to be seen.

Tony Pipolo

Nana has its New York theatrical premiere January 25–31 at Anthology Film Archives.