Oct 10, 2019

24FPS @ LFF 2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Dir: Celine Sciamma
Since 2008, writer/director Celine Sciamma has made her name exclusively in coming of age cinema, with her own films Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood and the screenplays for My Life as a Courgette and Being 17, all five of them among the genre’s best in the past few years. As her first venture outside that genre, Portrait of a Lady on Fire represents a big change, but Sciamma’s cinema, while evolving, as it has with each work, still feels as raw and personal as ever with this move into period romance.

In 18th century France, painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Because she doesn’t want the marriage, Héloïse is trying to avoid the painting, so Marianne must observe her during daily walks and work in secret. As the wedding grows closer, so do Marianne and Héloïse.

Described by Sciamma as a film about the memory of love, the jumping off point is the titular portrait. When Marianne is asked about it in a drawing class where she is both teacher and model we move straight into flashback, finding her arriving on the beach, above which sits the stately home where Héloïse lives with her mother (Valeria Golino) and their young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami).

Like many love stories, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is initially a slow burn. In her aim to film the growth of desire, Sciamma uses both this slow pacing and the composition and timing of her images brilliantly. The film is incredibly sensual and tactile, taking in details of form and texture in a way that seems to try to replicate Marianne’s painter’s eye for detail. This is seen in how the camera dwells on things like the folds of a dress, as well as in the way it regards Haenel, taking in every angle and line, allowing her to give a performance that works in tiny nuances, especially during the first half of the film, which is essentially a process of breaking through Héloïse’s shell. The first time Haenel smiles in the film, which is almost imperceptible and almost halfway through, is the first moment that begins to trigger the realisation of the desire and slowly forming passion that Sciamma has been building.

In a film where gaze is paramount, it is fascinating to watch how that aspect evolves. The connection between Merlant and Haenel changes throughout the film, and Sciamma often dwells in those moments, holding on their gaze towards each other, whether the two are in the same frame or not. The way the camera represents how they look at each other comes through in everything. It's there even in the design, the home feeling colder in the beginning of the film and the warmth of the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse seeming to warm up the surrounding environment, at least in the house, as time goes on. The central visual metaphor—Marianne seeing Héloïse standing in the opposite side of a fire at an outdoor party and Héloïse’s dress catching fire, just as the yet unspoken desire is rising on both sides—may not be subtle, but it’s evocative, thanks especially to the painterly texture of the image. This painterly feel is embedded in many of the film’s important images, most notably a recurring and fleeting image of Héloïse in a white nightgown; she seems part ghost, part painting, and that image becomes more affecting every time we see it.

The romance is the centre of the film, but many other concerns run through it as well. As well as being about love, the film features a telling depiction of female friendship and support, as Marianne discovers that Sophie is pregnant and the women try to obtain an abortion for her. That sequence, thanks to one element included by Sciamma, bears such complexity of feeling in a way that never lectures and is entirely fresh. It’s sad yet a victory; tough yet tender. Sciamma also interrogates the place of women in 18th century society. The idea that Héloïse is meant primarily as a bauble, a decoration for her husband to carry around is embedded in the portrait process, and especially in the more idealised image that Marianne paints when her model won’t sit for her. We also see this in Héloïse’s mother—clearly unhappy with her own arranged marriage, but now engaged in making the same bed for her daughter to very literally lie in.

Passionate but never exploitative, it’s obvious that a female gaze is behind the love scenes, but it’s sometimes the painting scenes that feel most telling of the relationship at the heart of the story. As they build to the first kiss, these sequences are as intense and intimate as any in the film, and after the relationship is formed they become playful; the intimacy acknowledged and embraced. Art also plays a part in the film’s most exposing scene, as Marianne draws a self-portrait, a secret thing for her lover to keep, while looking in a mirror she has set between Héloïse’s legs.

The film is exquisitely crafted, from the impeccable framing that only draws parallels between the arts of painting and cinema to the lack of non-diegetic music, which forces us to dwell in the same space as Marianne and Héloïse, to experience the growth of their love without being instructed by a score as to what we should be feeling. This extends to the work of the actresses (two men appear in the entire running time, each for a few seconds). The supporting roles are well cast, with Valeria Golino again reminding us how good she is, finding layers of sadness in the Countess and Luàna Bajrami making Sophie another interesting and important prong in the way the film looks at female relationships, beyond the romantic and sexual. Of the leads, Noemie Merlant is perhaps easier to read in the initial part of the film, from her emptiness in the opening scene to the way Marianne is progressively drawn to Héloïse, prompted initially by the mystery of what this woman may look like. The study of that face, which grows into a stronger desire scene by scene, is as brilliantly played as it is cued by Sciamma’s camera.

Sciamma has said that this film was made for Adele Haenel, and it’s difficult not to see it through the prism of their working and personal relationship. In many ways it is a film about Haenel’s face and the fascination it holds; for Marianne and, through the lens, for Sciamma. It would be tempting to take this reading further, but for all its clearly personal content there is a universality here. The power of the memory of love is hardly exclusive to any one relationship, and it’s impossible not to connect with the melancholy of that element, especially as the film runs up to the completion of the portrait. Haenel’s performance, even by her own standards, is superlative. The subtlety of what plays on her face, the way she shifts Héloïse’s character as the film goes on. She is perhaps most powerful in her silences, never more so than in the film’s beautiful final shot; a three minute take that simply tracks in on her. Haenel is one of the best female actors in Europe, and this is her finest performance to date.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunning achievement, rich and detailed in storytelling, metaphor and resonance. It’s proof that Celine Sciamma is more than just an accomplished teller of teenage stories, and further develops her cinema to put her on a level with the great visual storytellers around right now. It’s essential viewing for fans, and maybe even more so if you’ve not yet discovered her work.
★★★★★

Oct 8, 2019

24 FPS @ LFF 2019 La Llorona

La Llorona
Dir: Jayro Bustamante
In present day Guatemala, former general Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) is on trial for genocide he is alleged to have overseen thirty years prior. As the trial comes to an end, and increasingly after a controversial decision prompts protests outside his family home and a new maid arrives on the same day, he becomes convinced that he can hear a weeping woman in the house during the night. The family think he may be imagining things because of his dementia, but he believes it is the vengeful La Llorona.

Doing a little reading around the film, it is clear that it takes many of its cues from fact, with the element of the trial and how it works out based quite closely on the case of Guatemala’s former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt. Knowing this, the reckoning with genocide becomes much more than simply window dressing for a horror movie. History hangs over the film, lending its slow-building horror and tension extra weight and power.

Despite this heavy subject matter in the background, director Jayro Bustamante is definitely having fun here. Over and over, he allows the potential for the film to take a very typical genre route, setting up the cliche images of the haunting movie, but over and over again he undermines these banal conventions. Sometimes it is simply in the timing, the fact that a slow build of creeping around the dark house doesn’t lead to, for instance, a cut to an apparition screaming in our faces, but he often directly defuses the images. One great moment has the new maid, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) her long hair being blown across her face by an unseen force (I think the shot is also very slightly slowed down), then Enrique’s granddaughter steps into frame, and we see she’s drying Alma’s hair. It’s funny, and yet the original image still feels a little creepy, and this is a trick Bustamante manages to repeat several times.

The horror elements of the film are slow, ominous and creepingly effective, growing more so as they become ever more entwined with the history and as we see figures from Enrique’s family in different roles within the flashbacks, likely as a way of underlining their complicity, even if their role wasn’t active. It further defies convention by using no CGI, or even any overt ‘scares’ to effect its horror.

The legend of the weeping woman was, earlier this year, the basis for a weakly received entry in the ongoing series of Conjuring universe films. If you’re looking for the same sort of pop up book boo scares, you’ll probably be disappointed in this. For me though, this is one of the more provocative and interesting horror films of the year, reckoning with real monsters through a legendary one.  
★★★★

24FPS @ LFF 2019: Run

Dir: Scott Graham
Finnie (Mark Stanley) is stuck. He works at the fish factory in Fraserburgh, lives with his wife Katie (Amy Manson) and their children. Their eldest, Kid, (Anders Hayward) is about 17, his girlfriend Kelly (Marli Siu) is pregnant and it looks like he’s about to fall into the same pattern as his parents, whose ‘Born to Run’ tattoos now just look ironic.

Scott Graham’s third film brilliantly captures a very particular kind of inertia. Set over 24 hours, it breaks down into distinct sections, first laying out why Finnie feels so trapped, before allowing him to glimpse a way out and resolving whether he takes it. The first act is simply Finnie’s day to day; an unrewarding and likely fairly low paid job, being driven back and forth by his son, the daily shop for stuff for supper, and a marriage which might have seen better days. It’s notable that this doesn’t seem like it’s the worst day of any of these things, just another day in the slow grind that seems to have been wearing Finnie down. We get it when, after everyone’s asleep, he ‘borrows’ Kid’s car and goes for a spin. Going for that drive leads into the film’s second section, an extended detour with Finnie driving around the town. When she asks where Kid is, he ends up with Kelly in the passenger seat and the two drive around, racing some of Kid and Kelly’s friends, then aimless, waiting for the next race.

The long sequence in the car is ultimately about Finnie recapturing his youth. It’s significant that both the car he’s joyriding in and the girl in the seat next to him are much more connected to his son, Finnie is trying to throw himself back twenty years, when it would have been Katie in the passenger seat. In a way, he’s successful and as the sequence runs on we can see that he’s indulging more and more in the idea of the road opening up in front of him, offering more than a race - the sort of possibilities it might have held when he was Kid and Kelly’s age. The race too feels thematic, speaking of how Finnie has likely tried to escape many times, but found himself always turning the same circle, back to Katie and his kids. This is one of the great things about the film, it’s clearly set on a very significant day, but you can believe that this is just one of many days like it for Finnie; the 24 hours we see feel like a microcosm of a whole life.

As with his previous films, Shell and Iona, Scott Graham achieves a great sense of place in Run. The dialogue is particularly specific, thickly accented and in dialect that takes a little while to settle in to if you’re not from this part of Scotland. This only adds to the very observed feel of the first and last acts of the film, grounding us in the language of Finnie and his family as well as in their lives. Of course, this is also down to the naturalism of the performances. From a technical standpoint, it’s worth noting that few, if any, of the main cast are using their native accents, and all the work in that area is impeccable. 

Mark Stanley and Amy Manson’s performances as Finnie and Katie imply all of the backstory we need. We can see them as young sweethearts, getting pregnant early, putting their lives on hold. We get glimpses that suggest Katie also wants, in her own way, to get out of the ordinary, even if it’s by doing something as simple as wearing a nice dress, though it’s only for a family dinner of fajitas. Because this is largely Finnie's story, Manson is often a more muted presence, but the details of her performance are rich and her scenes with Stanley in the third act have real punch. The two have an interesting energy together, again we can see the couple they might have been in the past, and that things aren’t always so great now. There’s a real sense of shared history between them that gives the film added resonance. It matters that we feel the past while watching these characters' present because the film's last moments might feel trite without it, but the depth of the relationship allows them to work.  

Marli Siu, on the rise after Anna and the Apocalypse and with Our Ladies also in this year’s festival, is also very strong as Kelly. The growing rapport between her and Finnie as they drive around at night has an interesting dual dynamic, as you can appreciate why each of them is being pulled in, but also see that it’s not appropriate. The car sequence is long, perhaps 25 of the film’s 78 minutes, but it’s justified by that growing dynamic and the sense of being caught up in an extended moment, best exemplified when Kelly puts CHVRCHES’ soaring Make Them Gold on the stereo and we’re lost for a few minutes in a classic movie montage.

As Kid, Anders Hayward only comes to the fore in the film’s third act, so talking about his most developed scenes isn’t easy. What comes across again is the authenticity of the family dynamic, especially when Kid and Finnie finally sit down and talk. One particularly strong scene comes at breakfast, with Finnie having to hold up the table because Kid has kicked a leg out from it; you get his frustration with his son, but also a hint that he sees a bit of himself in that action, it’s this back and forth that carries across affectingly a little later on.

I hope a distributor will pick this up soon, because it’s one of the highlights of this year’s LFF and because, three films in, we should be talking more about Scott Graham. Graham has done a great job across his work of digging into the minutiae of ordinary lives and finding stories that feel both specific and identifiable. Run is on those terms perhaps his most developed film, because it could be the story of any numbers of families anywhere around the UK or further afield and yet it grounds you in the specifics of these people and their lives. 
★★★★½