Venice 2023 review: Milk (Stefanie Kolk)

Milk is a methodical examination of loss and grief by a director whose unadorned naturalism has something unmistakably Dutch in its directness.”

Grief in cinema often leads to big emotions. But that isn’t the Dutch way, and certainly not the way Dutch director Stefanie Kolk approaches the matter in her reserved yet powerful debut Milk. Kolk, a former biophysicist turned film director, situates her drama around the grieving process of the young mother of a stillborn baby who needs to find a way of letting go. Though not entirely devoid of tears, the measured film eschews melodramatics as it tracks its protagonist’s journey to a quiet catharsis. Anchored by an emotionally internal performance by Frieda Barnhard (probably best known for her role in this year’s Berlinale entry Kiddo), Milk is a methodical examination of loss and grief by a director whose unadorned naturalism has something unmistakably Dutch in its directness.

Robin (Barnhard) and Jonas (Aleksej Ovsiannikov) have been prepared: their child will not be born alive. But Robin’s body hasn’t adapted to this sad outcome yet; the pregnancy is far enough along for her breasts to start producing milk. Although she manages to pour the first batch down the drain, she and Jonas decide to donate the milk to young mothers who can’t produce their own. A routine check, however, reveals that a venereal disease in her past prevents her from becoming a donor. As the bottles start stacking up in their freezer, the milk starts taking over Robin’s life and becomes a source of friction between her and her partner. The only moments she finds mental peace are during the long and silent therapeutic walks with a group of people in similar emotional distress. But as long as the milk remains her obsession, Robin will not be able to come to terms with her loss.

The film’s opening scenes in which Robin and Jonas, already aware of their unborn child’s fate, go through a series of conversations with some (seemingly actual) healthcare professionals are matter-of-fact, lending Milk authenticity right off the bat. The film rarely loses that tone as Kolk composes her static camera shots around dinners with close friends and family or at hospital consults. Even though there is a certain absurdity to the level Robin’s obsessiveness reaches, Milk never truly portrays it as such. Whereas Jonas can leave the tragedy behind over time, helped by the support of their loved ones, Robin’s focus on the milk leads to increasing irritation on the part of Jonas. Scenes where friends try to reach out to Robin become ever so much more awkward. Kolk places the scenes with the group of walkers as moments of reflection, both for Robin and the viewer, and as a guide to the progress of working through Robin’s grief.

A film that underplays its emotions as much as Milk is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but this isn’t to say the film is devoid of emotion altogether. Moments of quiet sobbing feel realistic and not milked (pardon the pun) for an audience reaction, not in the least because Kolk does away with music in these scenes, as she does in most of the rest of the film. This allows the viewer to soak up the vulnerability of Jonas, for instance, or register that Robin’s almost catatonic reaction does harbour a suffering soul. She keeps the emotions to herself for the most part, excellently rendered by Barnhard’s minimalist performance made up of slight changes in eyes and facial expressions. Both Barnhard and Ovsiannikov fare well with the mostly naturalistic dialogue of the script, co-penned by Kolk with Nena van Driel, but it’s the scenes in which they don’t speak at all that are the highlights, in particular the ones in which they break.

Milk production as a way to come to grips with loss is an original entryway into the age-old theme of grief, particularly because the milk is such a tangible object of the happier times that could have been. It speaks for the intelligence of Kolk and van Driel’s screenplay, which only occasionally falters in what sounds like too calculated dialogue but otherwise is steeped in realism. That gives Milk a muted tone, but one that feels lived in and authentic. The film’s second act may drag a little upon close inspection, but when the moment of finally being able to let go closes the film these nitpicks are forgotten. Kolk is a talent to watch, something her short films playing in Locarno already hinted at, and Milk is a fascinating film that will resonate not only with women (or men) who have gone through similar predicaments, but with parents in general.