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.

True Crime, The Last Dossier, and the Melancholia of Moving Paintings and Black and White Photography

David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon sounds like a rip-snorting true crime epic.  The labyrinthine conspiracy that lead to the murders of numerous Osage Indians for their oil headrights and the botched FBI investigation that followed is rife with terror and tragedy, but although Grann attempts a few passages of ponderous heft, most of the book is a dry by-the-numbers procedural that presents far too many names and suspects to keep coherent track of, never allowing us to latch on to any one person, and leaving us lost in the immense scope of the dastardly deeds.  The book is slated for a film adaptation to be directed by Martin Scorsese, and if there is anyone who can provide both focus and pep to the story, it’s probably him…though Eric “hit or miss” Roth is to pen screenplay, leaving me to worry the Osage might never get their due.

Though it’s presented like a true crime book, Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier couldn’t be more fantastical and “out there.”  Mercifully brief (compared to The Secret History of Twin Peaks), this dossier compiled by Special Agent Tammy Preston following the events of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return is designed to feed the fans.  Continue reading

Well If You Must Scream

We can scream if we want to!

We can scream if we want to!

Inspired by the current polling going on at Wonders in the Dark  (which for my money is the best movie blog site on the web right now) concerning the Best Films of the 1970’s, I decided to catch up on some of the great films from that decade I had yet to see.  One thing led to another, and there I was with the obscure Edvard Munch sitting atop my Netflix queue.  Directed by renowned forefather of the docudrama, Britian’s Peter Watkins, this complex and nearly four hour long biopic of Norwegian post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch was originally made as a miniseries for Norwegian/Swedish TV in 1974.  It was released theatrically around the world in 1976 and was recently done up as a two-disc special edition on DVD.  I watched it in those two parts over the course of two nights and was completely transfixed.

Brazenly presented in the style of a documentary, Watkins’ film begs you to feel as if his cameras were literally there from “moment one” in Munch’s childhood during the late 1800’s all they way up through the abrupt close of the film half way through his life around 1910.  Continue reading