Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"Jacob Oostra's work in sound design is part of an overwhelming naturalism, an intimacy of sensation and a sense of intimacy." | Photo: Courtesy of Thessaloniki Film Festival

Melk is a difficult film. I mean that in several senses, but I want to stress that these are all positive ones. It's an emotional, slowly paced, minimal exercise in character, in grief, and powerful for it. Robin, played with an often flattened affect by Frieda Barnhard, was pregnant. Is it enough to say that it is not a happy story? That something went awry?

Melk gives us details of process, of procedure, of sympathy. The statement that "it is what it is" might cover the film itself. A less confident film might raise its voice or stamp its feet but Melk is something cooler. I'm not sure which more regularly generates a sense of unease and distance, the static camera in some shots or the one that does and doesn't move the way a person stands when they are trying to be still. The following makes individuals within groups and groups of individuals, the car becomes tiny on a long road south. The slight sway of unsteady leg and arms through the slighter sway of drying laundry that would cover them is a curtain to closeness.

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There is a sure-footedness to Melk that belies its status as a debut feature. Stefanie Kolk directs, co-writes with Nena Van Driel whose only other feature (Kiddo, also 2023) stars Barnhard as a mother in very different circumstances. On the basis of her performance, of this film, I'm trying to track down a copy myself. She's compelling, even when we are looking at her looking. I find a parallel with the moment in I Am Love where Tilda Swinton's Emma, a Russian married to an Italian, is privy to a conversation in English that occurs over her head. It's not just about acting but not reacting, it's a performance remarkably keenly judged and equally keenly observed. It's also reserved, resisting any number of temptations. I had a moment, between a reference to a novel and a moment at a table where I was minded of Stalker. Though in much the same zone, the unknown, desire, there is a different though almost equally unknowable force at play.

Emo Weemhoff's cinematography does a tremendous job of capturing the Dutch winter, something about the light meant that watching it felt like a window to the recent past. About six hours at this latitude, at this time of year. A crispness, a precision, possibly even a sterility. All part of that coldness.

Roger Ebert described film as a "machine that generates empathy", and Melk is an excellent example of that engineering. The sparseness of Alexander Reumer's score, often multi-instrumental but sparingly used. The performance of Barnhard. The circumstances. Not a mother, but still with milk, Robin seeks to donate. The mechanisms, the procedures, the need. We talk of emotions being bottled up, of outpourings of grief, the liquidity of feeling such that in changed conditions it can be frozen, given vent. In an expression of grief, and its lack.

There is a walking group, a silent one, for those mourning. Clipboards and leaflets, meditative meanderings. Plucked strings and the crunch of leaves, of sandwiches. A breast pump that could almost be techno, a tone that matches but does not quite the different insistence of the telephone. Jacob Oostra's work in sound design is part of an overwhelming naturalism, an intimacy of sensation and a sense of intimacy. Sometimes it's a hug, a bump on the shoulder. Sometimes it is peeing with the door open. Sometimes it's sandwiches. Sometimes it's milk.

At 96 minutes it feels longer, and if I'm to seem sour on anything it's that it does take its time. To its credit, I'd stress, finding somewhere between the glacial and the elegaic. That lack of activity might be too much for some, as with the rambling bereaved we are fellow travellers to silent mourning. I found myself sitting alone with my own thoughts. That is difficult, in several senses, but I want to stress that these are positive ones. There's a part of me that wants to make some dairy pun about its quality but Melk deserves better, is better, and while I might try to have my cake and eat it by churning out something along that line that's more pat than this.

There are no good forms of grief, it's not a quirk of language that we refer to loss. In defiance of comparative arithmetic I'd argue that there are no forms of grief that are better, but several that are worse. Melk, unflinchingly, is one of the latter. In defence of film I'd argue that there definitely some that are better, and many that are worse. Melk, I'll say unflinchingly, is one of the former.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2023
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Melk packshot
A mum who has lost her baby tries to work through her grief as she attempts to donate her milk.

Director: Stefanie Kolk

Writer: Stefanie Kolk, Nena van Driel

Starring: Frieda Barnhard, Jules Elting, Wimie Wilhelm, Marleen Scholten, Arnoud Bos, Hans Ligtvoet, Murat Toker, Aleksej Ovsiannikov, Dolores Leeuwin, Ruth Sahertian, Christophe Lowie, Monique Heijmink-Wiegman, Tanja Rozeboom, Charles Verhoeff, Maren Jebbink

Year: 2023

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Netherlands

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