A Haunting Love Told in brushstrokes: Celine Sciamma’s Unforgettable PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Imager from Youtube.

Every year the New York Film Festival brings about 30 new World, US, and North American premieres which get shuffled along with retrospectives, documentaries, and a new section, Projections, in which smaller films, usually by new and/or rising directors, also get their own screening, It’s usually a gargantuan task for someone like me to pencil in about one to two movies a day during a 17-day stint and often it’s just nigh impossible. Plus, with some of them colliding with others, and the Film Society’s rather tight schedule of screening a movie at least twice (that is, until demand becomes overwhelming and they are called upon to open more slots for viewers hungry for first dibs, well before the mainstream can get to it), it can sometimes be a losing battle and one has to throw in the towel and catch at least a portion of the festivities and, like in the case of Celine Sciamma’s new movie, wait for its proper release.

I was lucky. Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t hit theaters until mid-February, 2020, which is criminal. I don’t know why it couldn’t have just stayed in theaters during December, when it made its one-week appearance for Oscar consideration. The screening I went to at the Angelika was packed to the gills — there was barely a seat left in the house where one could place ones drink and coat. That alone shows the power and allure this movie, Sciamma’s first incursion into period piece and a masterstroke at that, has had on its audience. I arrived about 20 minutes before seating, and already there were audience goers lavishing praise on the film, commenting on this being their second time viewing it to “capture the essence of art rendered on cinema”. It made me jealous; I sat there sipping my espresso thinking had I only made other choices, had I only not seen only wish I had seen it at the Alice Tully, but it conflicted with the screening of Liberté. [Not that I regret it.] Oh, well. Quel dommage.

Up to now, Celine Sciamma had been known almost primarily for her coming of age stories set in today’s time. None of her movies (Tomboy, Girlhood) hinted at the ambition, the sheer scope, that she showcases in her current movie (which is probably why I also may have decided against it). Reader, when Portrait of a Lady on Fire premieres next month you owe it to yourself, if you love movies as much as I do, to skip the graveyard of horror, action, and dull comedies to go see this movie alone. If you don’t even as much as see another one, that’s okay; all is forgiven. What Sciamma does with a deceptively simple story of tragic love goes far, far beyond what Todd Haynes did with his very own Carol (and I loved that movie to the point that it became my favorite for 2015).

Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes place at the end of the 1800s. Marianne (Noémie Berlant), a young Parisian artist, is hired to paint the portrait of Hëloíse, (Adèle Haenel), a young woman living in a remote area off the coast of Brittany who is betrothed to marry an Italian nobleman. The assignment itself isn’t complicated at all as this was the custom of affluent people about to enter into the institution of marriage; however, upon arrival, Marianne is notified that Hëloíse has been notoriously difficult to paint, as she doesn’t want to marry. Her mother (Valerie Golino) informs Marianne that she will then have to paint the portrait by memory alone and act as a companion to Hëloíse who must not be informed by any means that her portrait is being done.

Noémie Berlant as Marianne in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

The story itself could hinge on this premise alone and for a while it does, but Sciamma is more attuned to slowly revealing a narrative in which both Marianne and Hëloíse start to reveal aspects of themselves, which naturally brings them closer together. When it becomes clear that Marianne is now starting to feel a fraud because a) Hëloíse is a woman she has to lie to, constantly, in order to glean as much visual information as she can in order to terminate her assignment, and b) feelings start to develop. How clever, an insightful, of Sciamma, to not only place two women in a time period when even the possibility of a same-sex attraction could be seen as criminal, but one that because of their isolation from glaring eyes starts to become stronger than the symbolic painting itself. Portrait of a Lady on Fire often looks and feels very Bergmanian, with characters talking with pauses, the camera placed at an angle from their faces that express oh-so much.

Image from IMDB.com

It also moves at a deliberate pace of a thriller even though there is really no mystery at all. Even so, Sciamma’s movie is drenched with the aura of portent (and deservedly so) that it will come across as a puzzle, most pointedly because of Hëloíse herself, who first gets introduced from the back, wearing a black hooded cape, and goes from pregnant, moody silences to sudden, jerky movements as when she attempts to rush towards the cliffs in a mock gesture of suicide (her sister, caught in a similar predicament, threw herself off and died). And what could be that brilliant white vision of Hëloíse that Marianne continues to have at regular intervals throughout the picture?

Dear reader, if you enjoy movies that move slowly, but with purpose, who reveal their cards one at a time, who don’t adhere to what you would be guessing should happen and take off into unknown territory which itself grounds the story in a romance steeped in fate, lush sensuality, and the sudden, overwhelming notion that this could all end in a crushing halt, then this is the movie for you to view, digest, and enjoy. The colors are alive in Sciamma’s movie in ways that make it look, itself, as painting in movement (as opposed to the use of hyperrealism to make every color an experience in Giallo). Adèle Haenel, a French actress (and Sciamma’s former girlfriend) has never been better, doing next to nothing but letting her own presence narrate the entire movie. Noémie Berlant carries the heavy dramatic load since she is almost always on screen, silently rendering her work of art with a meticulous delicacy that often seems as though she were “creating” her own vision of Hëloíse. Portrait of a Lady on Fire also contains one of the single most striking final shots –itself a work of art and I don’t mean to sound cliche — I have ever seen committed on film. It is so overwhelming in emotion that I felt as though I would drown in my own tears and choke from the pain I felt in my throat. If love were this deep, and rendered eternal through a clever positioning of a finger in a book… I would live forever.

I will call Portrait of a Lady on Fire one of France’s highest achievements in cinema and a movie that years from now will feature well up there with the movies of Renoir, Truffaut, Demy, and Tourneur. Go, go, go see it, you owe it to yourself to do so. It premieres February 14, 2020, in select cinemas.

THE REPORT presents a horrifying picture of American extremism that needs to be studied… and then never repeated again.

The years following 9-11, as I recall, were ones of almost open Islamophobia, fear of bombs in trains, fear of anyone looking ‘suspicious’ holding a cell phone. Many of us smarted hard after the Towers fell, many of us even left the city to seek areas of less risk. [I personally know more than 10 people who moved well outside the NYC area, some clear across the nation, and one even to Hawaii.]

What we didn’t know was the near extreme reaction that the CIA would have, and the lengths that it would go to not just enforce their war on terrorism but to the lengths that they would also go to keep that disclosed while those in charge, those behind the programs of torture meant to extract “the truth” from jihadist suspects, would themselves be rewarded for their actions and today command their own security enterprises.

Adam Driver, an actor who’s on a winning streak following his appearances in BlacKKKlansman, The Dead Don’t Die, and the Oscar hopeful Marriage Story, leads an all-star cast as Daniel Jones, a former FBI employee and Senate staffer assigned by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to look into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes. That investigation starts ballooning into an exhaustive, corrosive scrutiny into the torture techniques that were employed by the CIA to extract information — despite proof that these did not produce any intel. As the investigation continues, staffers alongside Jones start to unravel, tensions mount, pressure from anyone within arms’ length of being in that report start to slowly tighten the noose on both Jones and Feinstein (who does what she can to protect Jones), until it seems that perhaps, all this work may not yield anything at all, or will be lost under the umbrella of redaction, leaving only an empty skeleton.

Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns are masters of bringing an abstract into the fore and basically turning it into the main character. In The Report, all we care for is this mammoth document, and that it sees the light of day to expose a dark, dark place of American extremism. All the characters in this labyrinthine plot merely serve in deference to The Torture Report, so any inner lives any of them may have is nearly redacted as well, leaving a rather effective thriller that provokes, nauseates, and also serves as food for thought. Despite the lack of characterization, both Driver and Bening do wonders to keep you riveted even when it never rises to the nail-biting tension that last year’s The Post, itself linked to All the Presidents Men, did.

HONEY BOY is Shia Lebouf’s love letter to… Shia Lebouf.

Image from The Observer

Let me start by saying, the promos are misleading. The pie in the face imagery seems like something pulled off of some of the shots of Booksmart, and while I didn’t take issue with that, nothing could have prepared me for the untenable bag of insufferable cruelty masking as a cohesive narration that Shia LeBouf, an actor who at one point I thought had great potential, unleashes on his audience. This is something that tends to occasionally pop up in independent cinema: among the clever new entries and occasional borefest man the 1,000 coming of age stories there is one that is none of them. It’s about pain, and anguish, and the horror of surviving it, and while I don’t mind a good story being told, once in a while we get something so painful one feels almost dirty after the credits roll.

That experience is Honey Boy.

I don’t want to eviscerate the movie because it seems to, at least in concept, to have been born from Shia LeBouf’s own painful story of growing up basically parentless while he worked as a child actor. A lot of actors have had horror-parents that pushed their kids to the utmost limit while cashing in on their fame and then shoving their acts of theft down their terrified kids’ throats with the logical explanation that if it wasn’t for them, the monster parents, those kids wouldn’t even be alive.

And that’s a sorry, unforgivable situation, one that I struggle with because abuse is abuse no matter how you color it. Once kids are subjected to any level of abuse, it will always be an uphill battle to escape that nightmare and hopefully emerge intact by virtue of spiritual fortitude at the end of the tunnel. Note that I say the word hopefully, because more often than not, the scars remain, and the child now becomes just as bad as the abuser, or repeats a cycle by marrying into it, or, as in Shia LeBouf’s case and as acted by Lucas Hedges in a performance and role that should have been expanded more on, acting out. That, in short, is just pain begging for attention and unable to express itself other than acts of mindless rage,.

The movie focuses on LeBouf’s alter-ego Otis (Noah Jupe as a child; Hedges as a young adult) and his often contentious relationship with his walking train-wreck father (Shia LeBouf). As an adult, Otis finds himself coming out of a violent altercation with the police and having to go into therapy to potentially remedy his situation. HIs therapist (Laura San Giacomo) suggests Otis revisit the past (like most therapists always do; find the source of the pain and then through immersion, get past it). We flash back to when Otis was a 12 year old at the mercy of his deadbeat father who believes himself to have been a lost prodigy of sorts and is not above stealing Otis’ earnings, or upheaving the boy’s life to serve his needs. Otis starts a tentative relation with an older woman he calls Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), which does not go over well with Otis’ father (or let’s say, Otis’ father’s unbelievably massive ego).

Undeterred, Otis attempts on more than one occasion to understand the sordidness of his life and in all builds up to a boil when he confronts his monster-father. That does not go down well, and Otis is left, again, destitute and helplessly codependent on his father.

The worse part of Honey Boy is that, even though it is autobiographical, it makes no attempt to resolve this untenable situation between father and son, and while the indie crowd might have applauded it for not going into easy resolutions, at one point one has to wonder, who did Shia LeBouf make such a horrible movie for? It brought me back to another, equally repulsive movie I saw years ago by Asia Argento, The Heart if Deceitful Above All Things, itself based on JT Leroy’s (Laura Albert’s) novel of the same name. That one was even crueler. Honey Boy serves as neither great cinema nor story telling; the characters flit in and out without any narrative purpose and we get only Shia LeBouf letting his father off the hook at the end (this is not a spoiler) and Otis in limbo. You can watch this for an experiment in how much torture you can stand. I just wouldn’t recommend it if I had any say in it.

The Last of November releases: KNIVES OUT, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, QUEEN & SLIM, and I LOST MY BODY

Image from The Atlantic

I’m starting to wonder if the murder mystery is back in style because since last year’s apt but less than stellar Murder on the Orient Express, the genre seems to be experiencing a slight revival with the addition of not-quite-murder-mystery-but-genre-adjacent Ready or Not, Death on the Nile (due next year), and Rian Johnston’s Knives Out, still playing strong in theaters all over the country. Knives Out comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a whodunit. You get the gigantic mansion that must have at least thirty rooms on top of hidden tunnels and secret spaces. You get a family that has little love for each other and their patriarch, famed murder author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The family has come together for — what else? — a family reunion. When you meet them, they couldn’t be more disparate, from alpha daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s a CEO mogul married to a louse (Don Johnson), bland brother Walter (Michael Shannon), shallow lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette), and playboy grandson Hugh Ransom (Chris Evans), who’s basically there for the hell of it. None of them have any love for the old man and all of them are after his money.

And then there is Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombey’s nurse.

To truly appreciate Knives Out, you have to focus in on the position that Marta occupies in this house of cards as she will be the focus of the narrative, not the others. As Harlan Thrombey’s nurse, Marta enjoys a relationship that one could say goes a bit past a simple caregiver and moves into that grey territory called a surrogate daughter. Seeing them interact, you can basically tell these are two people who almost finish each other’s sentences. Now, for the Thrombey’s, she’s “family”, sure, but you realize it’s all show as they treat her like a commodity and can never quite get her ethnicity right. The former will figure heavily into what part she plays here, since her mother is an illegal alien, the movie takes place in the Trump administration, and well… we have a problem with a young woman working as a nurse who has a mother who didn’t come here legally, who would be, in fact, deported at the snap of fingers. Especially when Harlan turns up dead the following morning, his throat slashed from ear to ear.

Another movie would have kept the whodunit factor right up until the last 30 minutes or so, but Knives Out has another story to tell, and again, it will involve Marta. We learn much more about Harlan’s premature demise, which has its own set of rules which Marta must follow to the letter. It’s then that Knives Out becomes more of a how than a who because it now places a seemingly powerless woman in a game of life and death where she now holds the cards and they are all Aces. It still holds quite a bit of surprises, however, and it works to the movie’s favor that it never spills into silliness (so anyone expecting the slasher crazy of Ready or Not might be a bit disappointed). Even so, this is a clever, well-thought out picture that respects its genre and sneaks in a few moments to As of the performances, they are a mixed bag: as I said, the strong point is Ana de Armas (and to see her interactions with Plummer is the movie’s heart). Jamie Lee Curtis does what she can with a small role as does Johnson, Chris Evans kind of telegraph it a bit thick; Daniel Craig almost steals the show with his Benoit Craig. While Michael Shannon and Toni Collette both play against type (he’s a weakling; she’s a paper-thin head-in-the-stars guru with a penchant for money), they don’t quite register as much. The rest of the cast, which features Lakeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell (recently seen in It: Chapter Two), and Edie Patterson don’t register as much, but that is to be expected when a movie like this features a large ensemble.

When I heard of this movie earlier in the year I thought that this was going to be yet another biopic of the now legendary (although he would be the last to admit it) Fred Rogers, a man with whom all of America owes his childhood to. Clever marketing, because it worked; when I saw this the day after Thanksgiving the theater was packed and it was barely an early morning showing. I saw people with their kids, entire families, in couples or singles, but it was clear: everyone was there to see a movie from the man who gave us Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

We weren’t disappointed. True, the subject matter is not the center of gravity of the narrative. When the movie starts, we see an award-winning journalist from Esquire magazine, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) getting into a violent altercation with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) at his sister Lorraine’s wedding. This is followed by an assignment by his editor (Christine Lahti, in a welcome small part) to write a short 400-word blip about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for the magazine. Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to meet Rogers at WQED for an interview and is baffled by Rogers flat-out Zen attitude on life. Lloyd thinks this to be an act — surely a man who plays a part on a kid’s TV show can be like that in real life, right? There’s got to be a catch here. Even the most hardcore entertainer eventually reveals his cards.

However, Rogers has none. In a later interview Rogers does open up and hints that his relationship with his sons was a bit… difficult due to being the sons of Fred Rogers. When Rogers flips the tables on Lloyd using a stuffed animal, he hits a nerve. A big one. It will show up later when Jerry, who has been trying to make amends with Lloyd, shows up at Lloyd’s place and introduces the woman he left his mother for. Needless to say, the event goes extremely south, Jerry lands in the hospital, and this will leave Lloyd in a state of unresolved limbo where he’s torn between the wounds of the past and carrying on the scars from that past into the present and future.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is so good in its quiet but poignant little story of two men affecting each other in life-enriching ways that it runs the risk of being overlooked as “too zen”, or “safe, but didn’t we have that documentary last year already?” I personally don’t care, this is a movie about people we need more of, people who understand the concept of forgive and forget, of helping others in need, and of bringing harsh truths without using lacerating language (but not sugarcoating them either). Tom Hanks instantly disappears into the role of Fred Rogers and he’s so good that, again, he may be overlooked in favor of other, more impactful performances in a supporting role.

Marielle Heller’s second film (after last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?) establishes her as a director of note. This very well could have been a sentimental by the numbers, but she clearly understands both the nature of the article (that eventually became something over 10,000 words and made the front page of Esquire) and of its topic. She also has great respect for Rogers the man and the educator and manages to cleverly insert elements of Mister Rogers Neighborhood into the narrative in ways I found truly touching. I’m looking forward to what she may be directing next. Go see this movie and leave with your heart exalted and a better appreciation for making amends.

Image by EurWeb

Prepare to be outraged. Melina Matsoukas’ feature film debut Queen & Slim arrives with a roar and goes out in a blaze of injustice, This is a newsreel of the latest in a series of hostile encounters between African Americans going on with their lives and officers too eager to gain brownie points and stats in their badges who continue to perpetuate the myth that black men and women must be subjugated at all times, and if there is clearly no evidence of them having done anything wrong, then evidence — justification for the stop — must be produced. The plot is simple as it is harrowing: a criminal defense attorney (Jodi Turner-Smith) and young man (David Kaluuya) meet for a dinner date that doesn’t promise anything relevant. On the way home they get stopped by an officer who happens to be white. The officer makes Slim, the young man, get out of his car as he performs his routine inspection. When Slim does not comply since he was simply driving Queen (Turner-Smith) home, events begin to escalate and become hostile. Queen intervenes, getting shot by the officer. In trying to defend Queen, because by now the officer is out of control, Slim shoots the officer.

A moral conflict ensues: Slim wants to report the event, but Queen, who is law-savvy for obvious reasons, informs Slim that just by being black they would be thrown in jail, and chooses to go on the run. They begin a trek across the country, going south where they hope to find a way to evade capture while deciding what their next move might be.

All throughout the film we keep rooting for Queen and Slim to somehow find a way to make their truth known — after all, they weren’t career criminals. Much like the African-American couple in Crash, these are regular people facing racism in America, a country with deep-seated problems between Whites and Blacks going back hundreds of years.

It’s why I had an issue when promotional advertising and even a character in the movie itself compares Queen and Slim to the “Black Bonnie and Clyde”. I would go out on a limb to perhaps find a similarity with the couple at the center of Badlands, but that couple also was also violent from the get-go (and also based on real-life killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The only other reference I could glean from Matsoukas’ punishing yet poetic road movie is Thelma and Louise, another story of two people caught in unfortunate circumstances who also decide that taking the road is better than facing any excess baggage coming with the consequences.

Melina Matsoukas clearly has a strong voice and wow, does she use it! This is a movie that had to be made, Absolutely. It is a love letter to all of the Eric Garners, the Trayvon Martins, all who faced the horrible end of a loaded gun because in this country, when you’re black, and made to show license and registration or you’re simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, you are already marked as guilty even when it’s blatantly clear that you are not. Both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya give standout performances that describe two people progressively finding a spiritual bond that will ultimately end in sacrifice. Hopefully the Academy will acknowledge at least one of them, because my God are they good.

Image from Netflix

Moviegoers, this one broke my heart in two. I don’t tend to see many animation films mainly because a) Pixar and Disney tend to focus on sending a message movie, and that’s boring, b) I’m a little over anime and some of these rather wild stories that I can’t connect with sometimes. Of course, nothing would have prepared me for a movie that not only dabbles in the strange, but also carries with it a heavy dose of sadness right from the opening sequence and into its shattering end.

So, imagine you’re a hand that comes to consciousness inside a lab. You realize that you were once attached to a body. You don’t recall how you got here in the first place. However, blind instinct to return to your place of origin takes over and you make your escape into the unknown. That is one half of this visually stunning picture directed by Jérémy Clapin (in his feature debut, and while I’m at it, my God have there been no shortage of strong to impressive film debuts this year!). The other half involves a young North African young male, Naoufel (voiced by Dev Patel in the English language version, who has found a job a a pizza delivery guy that delivers in 30 minutes or less. However, one delivery to a young woman named Gabrielle takes a bit longer than expected; the encounter, mainly through intercom, has a bit of pregnancy to it. Naoufel is intrigued by the young woman and wanting to get to meet her, takes on a job as an apprentice to a wood craftsman who turns up (after scouring all over for any info on her) to be her uncle. Eventually the two meet, but Naoufel makes a terrible mistake.

He tells her he was the pizza delivery boy.

While all this is happening we go back to the hands trek across town. What is remarkable about the way Clapin approaches the topic of a severed hand trying to find its way back to its owner is that it treats the hand as a completely integrated character full of emotions, hopes, and desires. One encounter with some hungry rats in the Metro is a high spot, as is one where the hand soars through the skies on an umbrella. Meanwhile, in the present, Naoufel’s revelation has taken a halt when Gabrielle freaks out at his confession and disappears.

Eventually, through clever flashbacks and some symbolism of a fly-motif that recurs throughout the movie we come to realize what happened to the hand and who it happened to, and its there that we root more for the hand to reattach itself. When that moment arrives the movie reaches its emotional peak. I’ve never seen an audience react so strongly — so emotionally — during a scene so surreal. This is not your garden-variety crowd pleaser, people: and for Clapin to bring so much beauty into a movie that would be pressed hard to find a crowd shows commitment to the art of animation and making a compelling, tragic story that manages to find a glimmer of hope during the cold of rejection,