Classical Romance and Feminism in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s quite a fascinating thing to watch Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire in our current day pandemic and masks environment. There are some accidentally eerie scenes on a beach early in the film (as opposed to the deliberately eerie scenes later in the film where ghostly visages of a bride appear in dark hallways) where our main characters, a female painter and her female subject, wear masks to protect their faces from the wind and stay for the most part six feet apart or more. Here the social distancing is a function of repression and social mores, the masks another costume accessory.

The costumes, setting, and social mores on display in this very French film are beguiling. Sciamma uses them, along with how she places and moves her characters in frame, to build tension. The film is deliberately quiet with no music score, so that the tension builds its own rhythm, and so that when music does appear au naturelle (like women breaking into a chorus chant on a beach at night, or during that bravura closing scene where the camera fixates on a woman’s reaction to a particular piece of music performed by an orchestra) it’s like a jolt of emotion. Others films have made this bold choice before, but Sciamma employs it in a most novel way. Likewise, nods to, and techniques used in, everything from other feminist yarns like Jane Campion’s The Piano (the opening at sea), to Scorsese classics (that “hands reaching for each other” scene transition from the campfire to the cliffside is immaculate), to Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (that closing shot!) are combined in some strange and beautiful alchemy as if they are being used for the first time. The characters echo this as their affair begins, musing about how every lover must think they’ve created something new.

But there’s nothing truly revolutionary here. It’s all very classical and romantic. It just moves the viewer in a novel way through the sheer force of Sciamma and her actresses’ wills. The performances are fantastic. The side-stories (like the maid’s unwanted pregnancy) are presented with a humanist bent. Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory, maybe second only to Nina Hoss singing “Speak Low” in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently streaming on Hulu.

Lost Girls on Netflix and The Escape to Candyland

The new Netflix film Lost Girls takes an interesting look at the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case from the POV of one of the alleged victim’s mother. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film gets off to a choppy start, but once Amy Ryan takes control and begins her mission to find her missing daughter, her impassioned performance raises the film beyond your standard psychological thriller melodrama. The supporting performances are also very strong, with the cast making the most of roles that would’ve benefited from more fleshing out in a longer format.

The material here is probably better suited for a miniseries, but I enjoyed the film’s compactness and some of Garbus’ moody visual choices for lighting, framing, etc… This is one of those sad but true tales about young women being marginalized and victimized, and the “stronger-than-they-thought-they-were” women in their families becoming their voice after they were silenced. Ingrained misogyny and corruption, as well as the mishandling of mental health issues are brought to light as the women champion for the murdered girls…but sadly to no avail as of yet beyond the story being shared.

Many of the stories in Yong Takahashi’s new collection The Escape to Candyland swirl around the marginalization and victimization of women as well. A good portion of the stories deal with women who were brought up in a corrupt and cultish crime ring headed by a pastor and yogi in Atlanta. These characters could’ve easily ended up like the women in Lost Girls.

Combined with other tales of immigrants, the marginalized, and the mentally or emotionally troubled, Takahashi’s stories make for an interesting read.

Both the film the short story collection standout because of their POVs. They both make it clear that these are voices that need to be heard…deserve to be heard. These are stories that are all too commonly swept under the rug.

The haunting line from Takahashi’s story “Sacred Places” rings true for all of these girls and women:

“We’ve lived our lives like compressed balls of yarn, twisted and knotted together, unable to separate ourselves from each other. Once I let my secret go, all the others will unravel.”

Written by D. H. Schleicher