Mia Hansen-Løve’s best films envelop the viewer so persuasively in their currents of feeling that it can take you a moment or two to notice how coolly and methodically constructed they are: the revealing agility of her camera placement, the sharp economy of her editing, the often rich irony of her musical selections, all subtly contributing to character portraits of granular depth. In “Maya,” her sixth and most internationally-minded feature, those virtues hit you straight away, only to reveal more grace and precision in the framing than in the rather hazily conceived characters themselves. A study of a European man’s healing Indian odyssey that gives in all too frequently to hoary colonial romanticism, this is the first stumble in Hansen-Løve’s hitherto impressive filmography — the kind of directorial misstep that at least makes it clear how deft her footwork usually is.
Coming off Hansen-Løve’s best and most widely distributed film to date — the Isabelle Huppert starrer “Things to Come” — the more critically divisive “Maya” is unlikely to leave as strong a mark on the arthouse circuit. The French auteur’s first venture into bilingual writing prepares the ground for a starrier English-language project, “Bergman Island,” set to land later this year. In some senses, “Maya” feels like a halting practice run for a filmmaker testing her creative borders: Hansen-Løve’s dialogue, typically so fluid and wry in her French-language features, turns notably expository and affectless whenever it shifts to English here. At a push, that stiffness might be in keeping with the rootless, clammed-up nature of its protagonist, drifting 32-year-old war reporter Gabriel (Roman Kolinka, in his third straight collaboration with the filmmaker), though you’d be hard pressed to call it an asset.
Like “Things to Come” and “Father of My Children” before it, “Maya” is a study in stoically managed trauma, largely free of the anguished outbursts we might expect from the subject. “I don’t want to be that victim that carries his trauma forever,” says Gabriel to a psychoanalyst, though the angrily mauve, melon-sized bruise we glimpse on his back is a clear symbol that his pain may be less easily shed than he’d like. Gabriel and his colleague Frédéric (Claire Denis favorite Alex Descas) have just been released from a four-month spell as hostages in Syria, though a third French journalist remains incarcerated; that fact tempers the euphoria of liberation, though Gabriel is evidently not given to demonstrative displays of emotion at any time.
“Maya’s” opening stages are its strongest, as the disassembled bones of Gabriel’s life are gathered with the quiet elision that is Hansen-Løve’s directorial signature. We sense something amiss in his reunion with girlfriend Naomi (Judith Chemla) before we learn that they’d broken up before his ordeal; a gorgeous, low-lit scene of Naomi singing a Schubert lied at a celebratory gathering sounds a tender grace note on a relationship that has already run its course. Gabriel was a man in disarray well before Syrian abductors intervened, and while Frédéric wants to publicize and document their experience, he wants only to escape once more.
A couple of breathtakingly swift, sharp cuts later, Gabriel’s in Goa, India, where he has some disconnected family history — a move that has a euphoric, lung-filling effect on Hélène Louvart’s sun-rippled camerawork, but otherwise sends Hansen-Løve’s narrative meanderingly downhill. Gabriel himself isn’t quite sure what he’s there to do: There’s a vague plan to fix up a dilapidated house that belonged to his grandfather, though he’s in such a breeze-licked, muscle-relaxed funk that he doesn’t make much progress. Only when he encounters Maya (first-time actress Aarshi Banerjee), the teenage daughter of his benevolent Indian godfather Monty (Pathy Aiyar), is he roused into expression, as the two shuffle into a very tentative love affair.
Maya is sunnily wise in her world view but naïve in the ways of men, while he’s burned out on humanity in general; it’s not hard to see how this somewhat inappropriate dalliance is going to pan out. The pleasure should be in the telling, but neither of those characters has enough weight or wit to make their bittersweet dance all that affecting. The most startling thing about Hansen-Løve’s script is how ill-defined its own title character is. The filmmaker who showed such microscopic understanding of young womanhood and its dueling, inchoate emotional impulses in “Goodbye, First Love” is here oddly content to treat Maya as a beatific personification of India herself — or, at least, whatever purifying bliss Gabriel seeks in its honey-lit landscape. Guileless, open-faced and most ill-served by the film’s flat English dialogue, Banerjee scarcely seems sure how to play this symbolically loaded woman-child.
Still, Hansen-Løve is too intelligent and reflective a filmmaker to go full “Eat Pray Love” on us. By setting her film predominantly in the tourist trap of Goa, the deterioration of which Monty glumly laments, she effectively calls herself out on the limitations of a western perspective. Jean Renoir’s “The River” is a clear reference point here, while the film never feigns anything but an outsider’s view — and not a wholly idealized one, as Gabriel’s Indian sojourn does little to mend his disaffection. But it’s disappointing to see the director this incurious about her chosen milieu, substituting quasi-spiritual serenity for political complexity in its characterization of a country and its people. Even allowing for his stifling trauma, that Gabriel’s journalistic instincts seem entirely absent on this journey into himself is among several details of his character, and Kolinka’s affably remote performance, that don’t wholly ring true.
As a travelogue, at least, “Maya” showcases all the silk-thread sensual pleasures of Hansen-Løve’s filmmaking, and her knack for woozy mood-building. Her first collaboration with the prolific, auteur-hopping Louvart is a happy one, yielding gently earthy, summer-faded images of the region’s natural beauty without fussy Insta-aesthetics. Her instinct for improbably poignant soundtrack selection remains likewise on point, as even a slowed, folksy version of Shakin’ Stevens’ hacky holiday standard “Merry Christmas Everyone” somehow finds its way to a lump in your throat. “Maya” leaves you yearning to book your own trip to India, if nothing else; the sense that this attractive, palliative recovery drama should have been something else, however, is hard to escape.