Films about blind women are commonplace in the Thriller genre. In films including Wait Until Dark, Blind, Jennifer 8 and Julia’s Eyes, a vulnerable figure gropes through the world, stalked by a killer with an enormous advantage over his sightless prey. Films about blind men, on the other hand, often cast their subjects as handsome, damaged-yet-appealing love interests: see Scent of a Woman, At First Sight, Butterflies Are Free. It makes an intuitive kind of sense: for Hollywood, making a male character blind gives them a vulnerability that takes the edge off their traditionally masculine independence and connotes sensitivity. But making a female character blind enhances a vulnerability that is already inherent in her being female: if she needed protecting by men before, boy does she need protecting now, and why not throw a knife-toting maniac in as well, to really make that plain. French director Léa Mysius’s first feature, Ava, avoids the above clichés.
Ava, thirteen, is spending the summer with her slightly thoughtless but well-meaning mother and her infant sibling at the seaside in the Medoc. A doctor tells her that her degenerative eye disease will render her blind in a matter of months: first at night, and then completely. Ava’s mother vows that they will have “the best summer ever”. For her mother, this means ice cream, sunbathing and striking up a romance with a beachside food vendor. Ava, too, wants to make the most of her last sighted summer, but has a more mature idea of what that might entail. She goes about blindfolding herself in order to train her other senses, exploring the town alone at night and eventually running away with her lover, a traveller called Juan whom she finds sleeping on the beach, shotgun in hand.
Ava opens on a brightly coloured scene, a Where’s Wally spread of bustling holidaymakers, sunning, swimming, applying tanning cream. Tense, skittish strings creep into the soundtrack as a black dog starts to roam through the shot. This black dog, who Ava steals from Juan before they meet, is a central motif in the film. Lupo, as she calls him, is a densely black omen of her coming sightlessness, but also a sign of the wildness and freedom for which Ava yearns. The colour creeps around the edges of this film as it does in Ava’s vision: the threatening police horses are black, Ava paints black circles on newspaper in her bedroom and she describes herself as “dark and invisible” compared to her blonde rival for Juan’s affections.
She’s wrong, though, about being invisible. This is a film about a girl who is not yet blind but getting there, not yet a woman but getting there, too. She is losing her ability to see just at the moment she is becoming sexually visible to the world, and the film is an exploration of how these two identities interact. Mysius is careful with her use of symbolism here, such as the scene where Ava strips off to swim in the sea blindfolded, and in voiceover, we hear Ava saying that in a blindfold, she feels as if she has vanished. It’s easy enough to read without feeling glib or overcooked. Ava, unlike other blind women in cinematic history, acknowledges her potential vulnerability as someone who cannot see and begins to build up an arsenal to cope with this change, rather than succumbing to helplessness. This, of course, is much closer to a blind person’s actual experience of life without sight. In the car on the way back from the doctor’s clinic, it is her mother who cries hysterically, not Ava. Her response is more practical. “I will do exercises to toughen myself up”, she writes in her diary, exercises that include tying a scarf over her eyes and walking along rooftops. And when Juan comes into her life, he’s not the poor blind girl’s knight in shining armour, quite the reserve in fact: she has to protect him from the authorities.
But if Ava is wrong about being invisible, she’s right about being dark. She’s not that likeable, and does not pretend or aspire to be so. Her sightlessness is central to the film’s understanding of her identity, but she’s also much like any other teenage girl: sometimes surly, sometimes joyful, sometimes impenetrable. Her mother’s new partner asks her why she doesn’t have a boyfriend and she replies that she’s “too mean”. There’s an amoral tilt to Ava’s personality that Mysius doesn’t try to resolve: she leaves her baby sibling alone in an apartment on purpose, she steals a dog, threatens holidaymakers with guns, lies about who she is. “Ava”, she observes in voiceover, “means I desire…but what do I desire?” This is the question at the heart of the film and we are witness to her trial and error process to answer it.
The desire to see mingles with Ava’s newfound, teenage desire to experience love and sexuality. While Mysius was writing the film, she reported suffering from intense migraines which forced her to work in the dark, and she credits this circumstance with giving the film its “throbbing heart”: a longing for sight. But Mysius doesn’t take a shortcut to this by employing blurred footage or extended scenes in darkness to convey Ava’s viewpoint. Rather, the camera’s high saturation and contrast implies Ava making full use of her dying days of full sense and sensuality. Ava’s only fear, she says, is “having only seen ugliness”. In the first half of the film, she is embarrassed by her body, shielding her breasts from her mother’s new boyfriend as she talks to him, and recoiling at her mother’s sexuality and physical appearance. She recoils, too, at her mother’s explicit reference to Ava’s changing body, covering her ears to block out her words: “new boobs and buttocks making you crazy”. But as the film goes on she becomes both more blind and more in touch with her physicality as a woman: she kisses a boy, then becomes another boy’s lover, running around the dunes with her body painted in mud and dancing when she feels the urge.
Maud, the mother, is another delightfully complex portrait. She is not quite doting, not quite cruel, not quite irresponsible but not quite responsible either. She slaps Ava and cuddles her, puts her down and builds her up. Having said that she intends to make this Ava’s best summer, she spends most of her time pursuing a new romance, and tells Ava that she thinks she’s fallen in love. Although this story is Ava’s we get the sense that the mother is also engaged in her own sort of coming-of-age.
The plot runs away with itself a little at the end, but this is not unusual in a debut feature and there is so much to love in Mysius’ film. From the thumping drums and eerie atonality of the interstitial soundtrack to the blasts of Europop and soul, it sounds as good as it looks, and it looks very good indeed on 35mm film. The very last shot is the first shot where we see Ava break into a full smile as she drives off into her future, and it’s a smile you will feel like sharing.