Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019)

Written & Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Winner of last year’s queer palm at Cannes, Portrait of a Lady of Fire creates something new. By using the form of a period piece, Sciamma was able to create something contemporary. Set in the late 1700’s on a remote island, Marianne (Noèmie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

While the age of Enlightenment is taking place, women remain tethered by convention whether in painting, servitude or marriage the women of this film find themselves propelled by outside/social forces. For a time, these women are seemingly protected, isolated from the mainland and patriarchal society before being forced to confront the reason their lives have come together in the first place. The women of this film learn to depend on each other, finding a sense of companionship and balance only to have it abruptly end.

Hailed as a post me-to0, LGBTQ and feminist masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film most concerned with the artist and the idea of the gaze. This theory can be used a bridge between art as a medium and social theory, integrating politics and art history. While a gaze can be used to confer meaning upon a piece, the relationship of the viewer and the viewed are always in negotiation.

As best stated by [French historian and philosopher] Michel Foucault while studying the function of the gaze in the painting Las Meninas the “observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable…subject and object, spectator and model reverse their roles into infinity.” This communication is the exploration of director Céline Sciamma. The relationship between the two main characters blurs until it is unclear who is looking at whom. Through the film, the gaze becomes their mode of interaction. Intimacy and attraction grow as they share in this collaborative act and the painting’s completion serves as tribute.

Héloïse’s journey goes from being an object/the muse to someone who observes the subject and thus becomes the Marianne’s collaborator. This is a really amazing technical performance by Adèle Haenel, which destroys the traditional idea of art as a horizontal relationship to a horizontal one of give and take, or as in painting, layers of alternation.

This film also challenges the assumption that we have progressed as a society as well as in art, or at least that progress happens in a linear fashion. Choosing to place the film in the time of the late 18th century, a time known for a huge rise in female artists who were later censored and removed from art history is a very intentional choice. It is the perfect time to place a critique on the backlash female filmmakers are currently facing. This goes back to the idea of the gaze and one’s in ability to control how one is perceived by others, specifically due to culture and society. As Michel Foucault states “insofar as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on this qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved.”

A truly beautiful and cerebral film that will give you an exciting and new perspective on art and love. It’s a hopeful as well as critical film that offers insight into ideas of identity and personhood.

– Review by Jessie Zumeta


Have you seen Portrait of a Lady On Fire? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: THE INNOCENTS (2016)

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Directed By: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza
Runtime: 1 hr 55 minutes

Most war films recount history as if women were never involved or their experiences not worth mentioning. That is just one of many reasons why The Innocents (2016) stands out in the war film genre: it is about, for, and made by women. The result is a soulful essay about atrocities committed against a group of nuns during the second world war, portrayed as a complex metaphorical struggle between religious faith, medical science, and evil.

The linear plotline is as austere as the film’s narrative. We meet a serene and devout convent of Benedictine nuns in Poland who go about their daily prayer with quiet conviction and meticulous adherence to ritual. The serenity is shattered by the scream of a nun about to give birth. One nun fetches a French Red Cross medical intern Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laáge) who sneaks out of the aid mission to help. She learns that Soviet soldiers had raped the nuns and several births were imminent. Mathilde is a non-believer yet is bewildered by the strength of the nun’s faith and compelled to help. The nuns believe they are complicit in sin, and some are unable to even submit to medical examination while others do so with deep shame. The tension between sin and evil erupts when the baby is born and Mother Superior takes it out for fostering but instead leaves it in the forest. With more births coming, a convent full of babies cannot survive under Soviet occupation. It is Mathilde who finds an ingenious solution that ensures their survival.

Within this narrative arc, there are several strands that explore the nature and practice of faith by a group of women with varied backgrounds and different relationships with their god. Throughout the story, the tension between belief and logic creates a haunting presence. Young Mathilde struggles in a vortex of faith, science and evil, and comes to learn that there are no absolutes. The dystopia of war shatters all, yet faith survives in love and devotion to helping others. She grows emotionally with the experience just as the nun’s learn tolerance of those who do not share their faith.

While the film has a strong cast of fine performers, it is Lou de Laage who shines brightly in a difficult role. She seamlessly traverses a wide emotional range from inspired awe to resolute determination to help, including restrained romantic explorations with a senior colleague. The portrait-like cinematography conveys the bleak landscape and convent solitude with a sympathetic lens that avoids despair. The film is a tribute not only to the violated nuns but to women of all nationalities mistreated at the hands of military forces. Rape in war continues in modern times, with many nations in denial and others struggling with unresolved shame. This is not an entertaining story, but a dark episode of history on which light has long been needed.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘The Innocents’? Well, what did you think? 

Mini Reviews: Hitman Agent 47 | Seeking A Friend For the End of the World | The Last Flight

I wrote some of these reviews last week, but just haven’t got around to posting ’em. I haven’t got much time to write reviews lately, as I’d rather devote my time to my script. But at the same time, I do have something to say about some of the movies I saw, so why not write about ’em, right?

So here we go:

Hitman: AGENT 47 (2015)

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I quite enjoyed this but I realize it’s an easy target for critics who probably expected too much from this video-game adaptation. It’s a popcorn action flick, something that doesn’t demand much from you intellectually, so just sit back and enjoy it for what it is. I had a low expectation but I thought the story was pretty decent and at 96-min-long, it moved along pretty swiftly.

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I quite like Hannah Ware whom I’ve never seen before. Nice to see that her character is actually the heart of the movie. Style-wise it’s got plenty, I mean you watch this kind of movie to see the high octane shoot-em-ups, so I wasn’t disappointed. Rupert Friend makes for a pretty efficient, if not wholly-charismatic killing machine, but I think he fits the role well. Zachary Quinto is pretty much playing a similar character to Sylar in the Heroes series, but he’s watchable enough. I actually like this one overall than the previous Hitman movie, so definitely NOT as horrible as critics made it out to be.

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Seeking A Friend For the End of the World (2012)

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I was mostly curious to see this for the pairing of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley and on that front I enjoyed this quirky comedy/drama. As the title says, an asteroid threatens an apocalypse and a man (Carell) whose just been jilted by his wife decides to take a road trip to reunite with his high school sweetheart, Knightley plays the neighbor who somehow ends up tagging along.

SeekingAFriend2SeekingAFriend1 The two surprisingly have an interesting chemistry, but the movie is kind of uneven and at times I couldn’t really get into the story. Fortunately the ending is pretty sweet and it wasn’t as predictable as I had dreaded. So overall, it’s worth a look for the cast and the fact that it breaks the stereotypes in terms of casting, not just the two leads but some of the characters they meet along the way.

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The Last Flight/Le dernier vol (2009)

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This is another film I was curious about because of the pairing of the actors, Marion Cotillard and her real life partner Guillaume Canet. I LOVE Cotillard, she’s one of those actresses I’d watch in practically anything. Here she plays an aviator Marie Vallières de Beaumont who goes on a journey to find her lover after his plane disappears in the Sahara. In her quest, she encountered a French lieutenant Antoine Chauvet who loves the Tuareg people and even speak their language and has a Tuareg lover. In the course of their arduous journey, they develop feelings for each other.

TheLastFlight2 Now, the story is VERY loosely based on a real life adventure of British aviator Bill Lancaster, but they pretty much only used his name and a small part of his life for this film, the rest are fiction. I wish they had actually adapted Lancaster’s real story, it’s far more compelling and has more drama! Sometimes truth IS stranger (and more interesting) than fiction.

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This French film has gorgeous visuals of the desert landscape, filmed in Morocco. Director Karim Dridi seem to be a big fan of Lawrence of Arabia as some shots look like an homage to that David Lean classic. But the pace is s-l-o-w and the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere and a little bit of the intense pieces seem disjointed from the rest of the film. If it hadn’t been for the performance of the two leads, I might’ve turned this off halfway through. There’s a line from the film that says “I’m afraid I’ve taken you nowhere.” Well, the same could be said for the film itself. I don’t regret watching this one, but still I wish it were a lot better.

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So have you seen any of these? Let me know what you think!