One of Mia Hansen-Løve’s best qualities as a filmmaker is her relative disinterest in a tightly wound narrative. She’s a storyteller, to be sure, but less prone to tell those stories with conventional plotting than with moments, moods, and unexpected through-lines. Her best works – “Goodbye First Love,” “Eden,” and especially 2016’s “Things to Come” – tend to sneak up on you, meandering through scenes of offhand character study and chance interaction, before snapping fully into focus in their closing scenes. As a result, it’s natural to cut her latest picture, “Maya,” a bit of slack because it will presumably all come together in the end. Strangely, it never quite does.
Which is not to say there aren’t pleasures to be found here. In “Maya,” Hansen-Løve’s focus is Gabriel (Roman Kolinka from “Things To Come“), a French war correspondent who, when the story begins, is just returning home following a traumatic stint as a hostage in Syria. There are emotional reunions all around, and trips to the hospital and Gabriel is very matter-of-fact about it all; he is tempted to return to his former girlfriend, but reminds her, “We had separated, for the right reasons,” and is similarly skeptical of the benefits of post-traumatic therapy. “No psychoanalysis, no book,” he insists. “I’m going to India.”
Much of his travel is done in picturesque montages, crossing the country by train and taking in its considerable sights, and if these sections mostly amount to a travelogue, the aesthetic dividends render it forgivable. The beauty around him is offset by inner turmoil; he visits his somewhat estranged mother in Mumbai, and finds they’re unable to conquer their history and trouble — “It’s too late to start all over again,” he shrugs. “She has a life. She doesn’t need me.”
And while visiting his godfather Monty’s resort hotel, Gabriel meets Maya (Aarshi Banerjee). She’s Monty’s daughter, so Monty thinks he can trust his godson, and for a while, he can. But eventually, after a lengthy build, they consummate their attraction, and Hansen-Løve’s writing (combined with Kolinka and Banerjee’s performances) keenly captures the intensity of that first flush of love – or, more accurately, lust. Gabriel wants to walk away, but he keeps hearing her whisper his name, literally but also figuratively.
The divide in their ages — he’s 30 to her 17 — is disconcerting, and at this particular moment, we’d no doubt (rightfully) consider this picture differently if it were the work of a male director. And what is perhaps most disappointing about “Maya” is there’s so little onscreen to indicate it’s not. The story of the weathered aging gent who reconnects with his inner self via an emotional journey that detours through a teenage girl’s loins is one so oft-told, and so full of landmines, we keep expecting Hansen-Løve to turn it on its head. When she doesn’t, it’s not hard to wonder what exactly the point of all this might be.
That said, “Maya” is full of the kind of tiny, keenly observed moments that make Løve such a special filmmaker. There’s a scene, early on, when Gabriel exchanges loaded looks with a pretty woman on the dance floor, and the cut to the next morning is so perfectly timed, it’s delightful – this is a confident director, and she knows when to slice through this story. She beautifully captures the simultaneous feeling of relief and disconnect between Gabriel and the woman he left behind, and how her inability to comfort him says all there is to say. And the way Løve stays with Gabriel’s mother as she drives away from him, holding just a moment past the typical cut, is the kind of pause for humanity we don’t get often enough in today’s cinema.
Those vignettes and impressions are so vivid, it seems impossible that they’re not going much of anywhere, but here we are. The sins in “Maya” are minor; Hansen-Løve remains a gifted filmmaker, honing a distinctive voice and crafting an unmistakable style. But this is the first film she’s made that I didn’t immediately want to see again, as soon as possible. [B-]