A quirky, often blackly comic relationships drama sparked by a wife’s bout of postnatal depression doesn’t sound like the most inviting way to spend 90 minutes in the dark, but Dominique Cabrera’s “The Milk of Human Kindness” is a thoroughly engrossing gem. Strongly cast down the line and featuring wonderful ensemble playing at all levels, pic was one of the more solid entries in this year’s Locarno competition and, following fest play, could work as a midrange arthouse item, especially in Europe.
Cabrera’s two previous features, “The Other Side of the Sea” and “Nadia and the Hippos,” were both emotionally dense movies, with a tough edge mirroring her long background in documentaries. Three years ago, she also made a filmed diary of her own depression, “Demain et encore demain,” so, vis-a-vis the main trigger of “Milk,” helmer knows whereof she speaks.
However, what makes current pic such a satisfying work is the way in which she and her fellow scripters start from a harrowing opening — a wife in a housing estate in a mountainous French town, wandering around in complete discombobulation — and builds on that to create circles of coincidences and inter-dependency among a small group of people, all with problems of their own. By the end, the viewer feels as if a curtain has briefly been lifted on a collection of sometimes sad, sometimes funny, more often just normally screwed-up lives.
Christelle (Marilyne Canto) gets a panic attack one day when left alone with her newborn baby, and is taken in by a kindly neighbor, Claire (Dominique Blanc), who tries to calm her down. Claire seems like a tower of well-ordered respectability but she in fact has a married lover, Serge (Sergi Lopez, from “Harry, He’s Here to Help”).
Meanwhile, Christelle’s husband, Laurent (singer Patrick Bruel), starts looking everywhere for her, not realizing she’s actually upstairs in the same apartment block. At a family lunch outside town that’s also attended by Laurent’s brother and his wife, Sabrina (Mathilde Seigner) — who also happens to be Christelle’s sister — tempers explode, and Laurent ends up privately confessing his weaknesses and sense of impotency to his father.
With everyone seemingly related to everyone else, Christelle’s breakdown fans out to touch all those in her extended circle, forcing them to re-examine themselves. Claire even calls on the services of her ex-husband, a doctor (Claude Brasseur, in a vivid cameo), when Claire, finally back in her own apartment but freaked out to find Laurent gone, needs calming down again. Pic’s black humor is at its most notable here, underlining how a relatively small rupture in normality can threaten a whole web of delicately poised relationships.
Large cast of characters, which includes other smaller roles in some way tied to the group, blend with invisible ease. If any one player dominates the film it’s Blanc, as the endlessly patient Claire who best typifies the pic’s title. But there’s a selflessness to the performances that guarantees the fine ensemble playing, from the immensely popular Bruel in a low-key role as Christelle’s husband to Lopez in a relatively small part as Claire’s easygoing, married lover who shouldn’t even be in her apartment in the first place. In the end, no character ends up shortchanged by the script.
Film’s look is generally unvarnished, with some moments of indulgent, handheld camerawork that are too actorly by half. But when the movie is good, it nails emotions with pinpoint accuracy, and the ironic ending is all the more powerful for its apparent casualness. Beatrice Thiriet’s music is a plus, especially her unexpected use of broad, chorale-like lines when Christelle has another panic attack finding her husband gone.