Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, France, 2019)

The silenced speaking

I was relieved to get to see this the day before the cinemas closed. The buzz has been about for months and the film exceeded my expectation. It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little WomenWeathering With You, So Long, My Son, ParasiteBacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire tops them all.

Unusually, the Anglophone distributors’ title is better than the original because ‘lady’, rather than ‘girl/woman’, suggests the film is about social class as well as gender. It also references Henry James’ novel, adapted by Jane Campion (UK-US, 1996) as her follow up to her feminist classic The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993). We’re straight into Piano territory at the start of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s new film; she won ‘best screenplay at Cannes’. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an island on the Breton coast and is dropped off on her own on the beach. Unlike Ada in The Piano, Marianne’s art is her painting, which she has to jump into the sea to save. She’s been hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter in order to guarantee a marriage to a wealthy Milanese ‘gentleman’. The daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, also in Water Lilies) – surely named for the 12th century proto-feminist nun – refuses to be painted; she’s been hauled out of a nunnery after her sister’s suicide. Presumably her sister killed herself to avoid the fate awaiting Héloïse. Marianne has to pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint her at night.

What follows is a patient development of their relationship and, to an extent, with the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami – seen in School’s Out). There’s too much going on in the film to delve deeply into it after just one viewing. Sciamma (whose Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007) and Girlhood I quite liked; the latter received ‘rave’ reviews) allows her camera to be still, allowing the superb actors to take the weight of the narrative; the production design, by Thomas Grézaud, and Clare Mathon’s (of Atlantics) cinematography are fabulous. This stillness evokes portraiture which, of course, is one of the themes of the film: the representation of a person and, more specifically, a woman. The ‘female gaze’, men are virtually absent, is paramount in the film and Sciamma’s ‘queer eye’ offers a different way of eroticising the female body (though in a Guardian interview she says they didn’t get it in France). The key to understanding representation is knowing ‘who is speaking’ and here the voice, Sciamma’s obviously but also the characters’, is indisputably female. In contrast Blue is the Warmest Colour reveals itself as male fantasy. The film also manages to deal with the erasure of women artists from art history: it is a very rich text indeed!

Some of the specifically female things we don’t usually get to see in cinema are shown: period pains and abortion. Sophie has the latter and Héloïse demands Marianne look; in effect chiding the spectator at the same time because ‘not looking’ is an attractive option. Unusually for melodrama Sciamma ‘dials down’ the emotion in much of the film, the characters are virtually taciturn, but in this scene a baby plays with Sophie’s face during the operation to emotionally devastating affect. The repressed emotions serve to heighten the moments when the ‘dam breaks’, including one of the most emotionally draining final shots I’ve ever seen.

Sciamma’s use of music is fascinating as I didn’t notice any non-diegetic (on the soundtrack) music, though two composers are credited. Early in the film Marianne tries to play the storm sequence from Summer (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons) on a clavichord (I think); the payoff for this is in the aforementioned last shot. The other music is an apparent folk song (actually created by Sciamma) of the local female peasantry at a bonfire. The modernity of the chants suddenly breaks the diegesis (narrative world) of the 18th century as timeless sexual attraction between the protagonists is at last acknowledged by them.

I’ve already praised Mathon’s cinematography: she makes some of the scenes look like paintings and one where the lady, Héloïse, is doing the food prep whilst the maid embroiders is a startling utopian image. The utopian possibility is explained by the isolated setting on an island and many scenes on the beach, which is a liminal space where change is possible.

Portrait of a Lady is a truly great film and is available online at Curzon Home Cinema.

Crack 6T (Ma 6-T va crack-er, France, 1997)

Revolutionary ‘La Haine’

This was my final film in the Myfrenchfilmfestival festival and an outlier as it isn’t contemporary. Its subject matter, however, remains vital: young peope living in poverty in the banlieues of Paris. Co-writer (with Arco Descat C. who also starred) and director Jean-François Richet’s film came out two year’s after the seminal La Haine (France), which is about to be re-released, and is even more incendiary. At La Haine‘s Cannes screening the police turned their backs on the filmmakers in protest, however Richet’s call to arms is more direct: the film’s bookended by a young woman (not a character) seen above toting firearms with calls for revolution on the soundtrack. As both films show, such a conclusion is entirely reasonable as the underclass are downtrodden by society and kept in their (shitty) place by the police.

I haven’t found much written about the film but as most of the actors are playing characters with the same names as themselves, and the film is their only credit, they are non-professionals and the narrative is wrenched from the streets with an authenticity that’s matched by the handheld camera (cinematography by Valérie Le Gurun) and editing (Richet). Some of the cast are professionals: the schoolteacher, for instance, whose difficulty in dealing with delinquents is superbly realised, is played by Joanna Pavlis.

While the film doesn’t aspire to the mythological heights of La Haine it is, in some ways, more effective than its feted ‘brother’. The charisma of Vincent Cassel, for instance, roots the earlier film in fiction whereas Crack 6T has a more documentary feel. The latter film, by the way, is better at representing women who are mostly absent in both films. In a scene where one of the protagonists tries to chat up a friend from school she determinedly rejects him by pointing out that he has nothing to offer her because of his ‘gangsta’ lifestyle; she knows that simply ‘not fancying’ him would not be enough to stop him bothering her.

Hip hop music is important and the ‘girl with a gun’ framing shots are a music video ‘call to arms’. Richet went on to do the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (France-US, 2005) and the two Mesrine films (L’instinct de mort and L’ennemi public n°1, France-Canada-Italy, 2008).

Most of the films I saw in the festival were enjoyable; the winner of the Jury Award was School’s Out (which I had already seen) but I thought Escape from Raqqa was the best on show though I wouldn’t argue with the Audience and International Press awards to The Swallows of KabulMeteorites got a Special Mention, no doubt for Zéa Duprez’s sensational performance.

Meteorites (Les météorites, France, 2018)

Defying inertia

Zéa Duprez, who plays the protagonist Nina, is what makes this film, Romain Laguna’s directorial feature debut, worth seeing. Laguna’s co-credited for the screenplay with Salavatore Lista (and two other ‘collaborators’), and marshals a cast of non professionals brilliantly. However, whilst it’s not quite a ‘by-the-numbers’ ‘summer of love’ ‘coming of age’ story, it knowingly veers close to it. The symbolism of the meteorite, that only Nina seems to have noticed landed in the nearby mountains at the start of the film, is a little heavy handed but Duprez’s performance is anything but.

Nina is a bored 16-year-old falling for a young Muslim lad, Morad (Billal Agab), who we suspect is a ‘player’. The Muslim angle is both significant and irrelevant as religion isn’t important but the portrayal of the ‘everydayness’ of characters of that faith is rare enough to be significant. Morad’s sister, Djamilla (Oumaima Lyamouri), in particular, comes over as typical teen girl and she wears a hijab. The film knowingly plays with the genre by following a conventional narrative trajectory but then veering away from what appears to an inevitable consequence of actions. However, for me, it doesn’t quite veer far enough from convention to be a vital view.

Duprez hasn’t appeared in any other films since and reminded me of Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (Netherlands-UK, 2009), written and directed by Andrea Arnold, both of whom were probably playing ‘themselves’ to some extent. What’s refreshing, about both films, is the female perspective as well as avoiding any sense of victimhood.

Cinematographer Aurelien Marra captures the slightly austere beauty of the Herault and Aude districts, near Bezier. The humdrum lives of the protagonists in the midst of the landscape is a striking contrast. Inevitably, if you’re brought up in an area then you don’t notice where you are. The film got a ‘Special Mention – International Press Jury’ award as part of the Myfrenchfilmfestival, it’s not clear what that means but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t connected to Duprez’s performance.

To the Ends of the World (Les confins du monde, France, 2018)

Retuning from the end of the world

Overall this in a impressive Vietnam film all the better for offering a French perspective albeit one infected by Orientalism that, you’d hope, would be critiqued in the 21st century. It was shown at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight suggesting artistic worth and writers Jérôme Beaujour and Guillaume Nicloux (who also directed) have produced a thoughtful consideration of the ‘hell on Earth’ the French occupation caused post-World War II.

Apparently the lead actor, Gaspard Ulliel, is the ‘face’ of the perfume Bleu de Chanel; it’s interesting that the role he plays here couldn’t be further from such frippery. We meet his Robert Tassen digging himself out of a pile of dismembered corpses and he remains traumatised throughout the film. If being embedded in fragments of bodies wasn’t enough, his brother and his sister-in-law were amongst the victims so he spends the film seeking revenge against the North Vietnamese ‘general’ (I can’t remember the actual rank) responsible. The man clearly needs to be sent home for treatment but he refuses.

He seeks solace in drink and then is enraptured by mysterious prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) which is where the Oriental cliche appears. To be fair there is a little more to her character than a cipher; we do get a sense that though she cares for Robert she knows that the reality of her situation means affection is meaningless. Throughout we do not have any sense of what the Vietnamese thought about the colonial power and the civil war; they seem mostly to be shown as an untrustworthy bunch. In this it was bit like watching a film from the 1970s, such as The Deer Hunter (US, 1978). Incidentally both the violence and sex scenes are explicit and I would have expected it to have been certified an 18 if it had been released in the UK (erect penises feature). However, the Myfrenchfilmfestival suggests 16+, which shows the difference between French and UK regulation, and I have no problem with that. I do wonder, though, at the suggestion 13+ on Amazon Prime.

Ulliel is excellent as the morally emptied soldier and I enjoyed Gérard Depardieu’s ex-pat who occasionally rumbles into the soldier’s life to offer advice. I’m not sure what his character, Saintonge, represents; the first part of his name suggests ‘holy’ but I didn’t get that. I also didn’t understand why one character had to ‘come out’ as gay just before dying.

Escape from Raqqa (Exfiltrés, France-Turkey, 2019)

Into hell

Scriptwriters Benjamin Dupas and Emmanuel Haman (who also directed) based their film on a true story of a French woman, Faustine (Jisca Kalvanda), who took her child to Syria intending to help the victims of Assad’s government but ends up imprisoned, and working for, ISIS. The is Haman’s first fictional feature and his documentary background ensures we get a clear sense of place (the non-French locations were shot in Jordan) and it works very effectively as a thriller as Faustine’s husband, Sylvain (Swann Arlaud, miles away from the whimsy of The Bare Necessity), tries to facilitate his family’s exfiltration. There’s excellent support from Finnegan Oldfield, as the aid worker with expertise in the area, and Charles Berling as Patrice, Sylvain’s boss, who has connections to the French government.

What the film lacks is backstories, particularly for Faustine; why does she take her child into Syria? There’s a perfunctory suggestion that she wants to do ‘good’ but, unlike the case in the UK of Shamima Begum who was 15 when she went to join ISIS, we need more explanation why the older woman thought it was a viable plan. We have a sense of her disillusionment with aid efforts, but little of whether she is disgruntled with her husband, so more was needed for us to see her other than stupid. The UK government’s decision to strip Begum of her citizenship is disgraceful and the film shows the French authorities to be little better as Sylvain’s attempts hit a brick wall. To be honest suspicion of those who aid ISIS is warranted but the French officials are shown simply to be uncaring bureaucrats. Similarly, Oldfield’s aid worker, Gabriel, is unhappy with his role as a translator to an NGO in Turkey; why isn’t made clear.

However, these are relatively minor points as films that deal with the realpolitik should be celebrated, particularly if they are done so well. The portrayal of life under ISIS shows a dysfunctional world where women are slaves; though the sexual element, perhaps fortunately, is not shown. As in The Swallows of Kabul, male dominated, militaristic society approximates, at the very least,  ‘hell on earth’. The film doesn’t delve into how this came about (the US-UK invasion of Iraq) but it’s unfair to presume a fiction entertainment, for it is essentially a thriller, should give us all the details; though more would have been welcome.

Of the films I saw in the Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 this was certainly the most entertaining.

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix, France, 2019)

Channeling Wes Anderson. Aaaaaagh!

I probably shouldn’t be blogging about this film as its self-satisfied quirkiness channels Wes Anderson whose films, like his namesake’s P.T.’s, I don’t appreciate. Swan Arlaud plays a gendarmerie captain of a small town in the Vosges whose settled lifestyle, with his brother, niece and mother, is a cover for stifling boredom. Into his world lands Maud Wyler’s Juliette (Arlaud is Pierrot): Juliette the girl who inadvertently transforms the film’s ‘Romeo’ who – hence Pierrot – is a clown (because of his cloistered life).

Pierrot’s gendarmerie are a fairly inept and lazy group who are trying to deal with a nudist ‘terrorist’ group who steal things they think we don’t need. The ‘inciting incident’ is the theft of Juliette’s car thus becalming her in the town.

It’s writer-director Erwan le Duc’s first film and suffers for using the mysterious woman as a character who will save our good-hearted hero. Juliette’s backstory is somewhat obscure. There’s a subplot involving one of Pierrot’s troubled lieutenants who declares his love for Pierrot but this seems to happen only to fill time (and be quirky) rather than add to the narrative. Similarly, a World War II enactment is going on and the potential for satire appears: the only black person in the gendarmerie finds himself disturbed by the alacrity those playing the Nazis grasp their role. Only to be immediately lost as it’s forgotten the moment it’s mentioned.

Wasted amongst all is is Fanny Ardant as Thérèse, the family’s mum who has a Lonely Hearts radio show that only her sons listen to and phone in pretending to be someone else to keep her happy. It seems to me we have ordinary (and quirky) people who are not normally represented on screen, which is good, but then, the film suggests, we should laugh at them. We’re meant to side with the niece who fakes an application to college in order, understandably, to get away from the ‘madness’. Why are people who are different meant to be funny?

I’ve now seen all the films in the festival and three out of 12 disappointed; that’s not a bad ratio. Incidentally, Perdrix is ‘partridge’ in French; so it’s the Partridge Family without David Cassidy (reference for the 50+s only).

Holy Tour (La Grand-Messe, Belgium-France, 2018)

Nearly at the end of the road

The British (or is it the English?) like to think they have a distinct quirky humour (Monty Python for instance) which is probably a result of the fact that humour tends to be culture specific (unless it’s slapstick) and appreciation of other others’ funny bones is difficult. Certainly Holy Mountain counts as quirky: retired cycling fans spend a week waiting for the Tour de France (the 2017 edition) to whirl past them on the Col d’Izoard; 4km, or so, shy of the summit and finish line.

Such is the engagement of directors (Valéry Rosier and Méryl Fortunat-Rossi) with their subject that I spent the first few minutes unsure whether the film was fiction or documentary. The naturalness of the characters is such that the presence of the camera is almost certainly barely an impediment to their behaviour. This might be because the protagonists, to the extent they can be called as such, are old – at least 70s old I think – and really don’t care to make a positive impression. Maybe they were flattered that two young men wanted to film their lives. Of course, I’m not suggested that we are viewing unadulterated reality; that can never be the case in texts as they are, by necessity, mediated. In addition, the directors are credited as scriptwriters and they have moulded their footage as highly entertaining slices of lives.

The camera gets everywhere: the foot of an old couple’s bed as they say ‘goodnight’ to each other to a comically shot farmer cutting his field (all we can see is his bare torso moving through long grass). Rosier and Fortunat-Rossi have an eye for composition and often frame the characters in long shot so we see they’re simply lounging around waiting against the often stunningly beautiful landscape.

And when the tour does arrive, one of the characters watches the television to see if she can be seen on it rather than the race speeding past. She’s disappointed and concludes they should park on the other side of the road next year! There’s humour from the grumbling of the old folk as the young ‘drunken idiots’ arrive on the day of the race. When they crowd around a television in a mobile home to see the finish, minutes after the leaders have passed them, the broadcast signal – in true absurdist fashion – drops only to return after the race has ended.

Old folk are under represented in the media (at my age that’s starting to rankle!) and it’s good to see, even with all their ailments (bad knees and so on), a group of wrinklies having good natured good times.