Wednesday, February 26, 2020

248. French director Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature film “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) (2019) based on her original screenplay: An awesome film built on impeccable direction, intelligent screenplay, magnetic performances, cinematography and choice of music

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be described by some as a feminist film that tells a tale of four women characters in 18th century France devoid of any significant male characters, and made by a female director and a female cinematographer.  At the end of this remarkable film, you tend to discount the female element. You are stunned by the sophisticated quality of cinema the film offers that makes you discount the overwhelming female gender quotient. 

The following two citations of awards bestowed on Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire amply describe the worth of the film.
"The Gold Hugo for Best Film goes to Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma. The film portrays not only the exuberance of falling in love and the all-consuming nature that is love, but also the beauty of women's solidarity and the attempt to fit in a world that rarely seems to be made for them. The strength of the filmmaking combined with amazing acting, photography, and music set the jury on fire."
(Citation for the Best Film Award at Chicago International Film Festival.)

"This is a work, which excels in its audio-visual storytelling. Channelled through a strong female voice, it is at once narratively compelling and aesthetically striking. The film transports us to an age even more firmly in the grip of men than our own, to tell the tale of a handful of women. We follow their fascinating and deeply moving story, as they find intimacy and succour in one another, and a way to live out their dreams of freedom and fulfilment, to satisfy the longing to be a complete human being. In keeping with the best of period drama, our winner speaks to timeless human themes in a rich and stylistically self-assured visual register. With elegance, sophistication and courage, the film explores how love and vitality can - at least momentarily - throw off the shackles of an oppressive social order. Exquisite acting performances and cinematography, combined with a soupcon of mythological symbolism, add up to a work of serious artistic merit."
(Norwegian film critics award citation.)

Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is an enigma in the early parts of the film,
not suicidal but enjoying her freedom to run to the  edge of the sea
after her long years in the nunnery

Sciamma’s original tale of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is of a female painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) contracted by a countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her second daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on an island in Brittany, France. The portrait is intended to be a wedding gift for Héloïse’s impending marriage to a wealthy man in Milan, who was earlier meant to marry Héloïse’s sister who suddenly died before the marriage could take place. Héloïse, we learn, was recently brought by her mother to the island from a nunnery where she was educated by the nuns. Héloïse, we further learn as the film progresses, is not looking forward to the prospect of her impending marriage and has deliberately disfigured an earlier portrait of her done by another painter for her impending wedding and has subsequently become a recluse with only Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the maid, as her regular contact. Therefore, the countess briefs her newly hired painter Marianne that she has to paint her daughter Héloïse’s portrait without letting her know that her portrait is being painted and without revealing that Marianne is actually an artist commissioned to paint her portrait and not a mere hired companion for Héloïse, the official excuse for her  presence on the island.  Sciamma’s screenplay, in the early stages, focuses on Marianne’s intense creativity as a portrait painter in capturing the features of her subject first in her memory only to paint the portrait in secret, which she does in the absence of her subject. Héloïse. in turn. is surprised why Marianne is looking at her so attentively.  The entire process is cleverly captured on film by lady cinematographer Claire Mathon.  In this process, director and screenwriter Sciamma and cinematographer Mathon make the viewer fall in love with the duo on screen, with minimal dialogue spoken between the two characters. Sciamma and Mathon are the true “painters” in the film!

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) paints the portrait of Héloïse
from memory of the details she found while staring at her

The minimal dialogue in the film’s script can be assessed by the fact that Héloïse’s name in the film is revealed only halfway into the film. Early in the film, as Marianne is transported by boat to the island her crate of canvas sheets falls into the sea and Marianne jumps into the sea to retrieve it. Initially the viewer would tend to consider it as Sciamma’s design to introduce and develop Marianne’s character. On deeper reflection, Sciamma’s script and direction add another aspect to that scene: the fact that no male person on the boat bothered to jump into the sea to retrieve the floating crate.

Having introduced the psychological development of interest between Marianne and Héloïse, Sciamma moves on to introduce the physical and, ultimately, to the emotional interest that develops between the two ladies with time. A key element used by Sciamma to aid this development is music, carefully but sparingly used. Héloïse, in the nunnery, had been exposed to choir singing and organ music. Little else. Marianne introduces Héloïse to harpsichord and Vivaldi’s compositions.  Music is used in key sequences with elan. During the bonfire sequence, when Héloïse’s dress catches fire literally and figuratively, the women around the bonfire sing a cappella song. The final sequence in the film and definitely strongest in the entire film is that of the married Héloïse listening to Vivaldi’s second concert “Summer” in his famous four part concerti composition The Four Seasons. One can anticipate that over time that the ending will count as one of the most evocative film endings in the history of film, combining the effects of good scriptwriting, camerawork, direction and performances of the key actors without a word spoken.

The stares for a professional cause that kick off a vibrant relationship
The fire is real, but the fire in the film's title is metaphorical.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon captures the rare moment
as the painter Marianne will recall the magical moment 

Sciamma’s intelligent script suggests parallels with the mythological tale of Orpheus using music to lure his wife Eurydice back from the dead (the nether world of Hades) with a condition made by the gods that the Orpheus does not look at his wife. In the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the married Héloïse does not appear to look at Marianne while listening to a Vivaldi concert, music that Marianne had  made Héloïse appreciate prior to her marriage.

Héloïse discovering new aspects of life from Marianne: music.
love, painted images, impending 

There is a sub-plot of the maid Sophie finding out she is pregnant out of wedlock and the subsequent secret abortion conducted by Marianne and Héloïse, when abortion was illegal in the 18th century France.  The role of the countess stresses another typical type of strong-willed woman in those times in France.  Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses the four female characters developed and presented by a predominantly women crew, each of the four characters contrasting and complementing the other. Whether one likes the subject of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is personal choice but most viewers would appreciate the high quality of filmmaking on display.  It is a film that distantly recalls Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Trust and love blossoms between painter and subject
The countess (Valeria Golino) (facing camera) presents
the typical 18th century lady, a lesser developed character of the quartet

Céline Sciamma’s ability as an original script-writer and director brings her in the august company of two other top-notch contemporary female directors: Claire Denis from France (Beau Travail and L’intrus) and Anne Fontaine from Luxembourg (Dry Cleaning). The entire trio have consistently made remarkable films independent of each other.

P.S.  Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the author’s top 20 films of 2019. The film won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival; the Gold Hugo Award for the best feature film at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Rare Pearl  award at the Denver International Film Festival; the Best European Screenwriter Award at the European Film Awards; Art Cinema Award at the Hamburg Film Festival: and the Felix Award for the best fiction film at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival. Claire Denis’ film L’intrus (The Intruder) (2004) has been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

247. Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s second feature film “Dylda” (Beanpole) (2019): A Russian Nobel Prize winning work of literature inspires a complex film on the varied tribulations of an unmarried woman

Three very interesting and complex films on women with screenplays written by the film’s own directors are those made by male directors. One of those three would be Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole.  Balagov has admitted that his main source of inspiration was Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexeivich’s 1983 book War doesn’t have a woman’s face. The other two films of similar artistic strengths and flavour about unmarried women are the American films: Joseph L. Manckiewicz’ The Barefoot Contessa (1954) with Ava Gardner (in arguably her best role) and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) with Jill Clayburgh (in one of her best roles). Balagov, unlike the two US director-cum-screenplay writers, co-scripted his film with another male scriptwriter, Aleksandr Terekhov. Both Balagov and Mazursky present a quixotic emancipation for their lead characters, while in Manckiewicz’ case the liberation, unfortunately, leads to tragedy.

Iya (Victoria Miroshnichenko) the Beanpole  (Note the use of white in this shot)

Iya, the Beanpole, in another contrasting shot. (Note the use of green
and the deliberate camera angle to capture it)

Balagov’s film Beanpole is not a war film though it is indeed a tale of soldiers just as Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is not a typical war film but rather a film on the “war” within the soldiers’ minds in a war setting. Likewise, Beanpole is an exquisite film on the psychological, social and medical “wars” female soldiers fight, on their return from the frontline for their aspirations for a emotionally fulfilled life.  Balagov is a self-confessed admirer of Russian film maestro Alexander Sokurov and the deft use of the camera, lighting, and visual composition in Beanpole will recall the typical Sokurov touches. (The use of colour and lighting in Beanpole is far superior and intelligently chosen compared to the Oscar nominees of 2020.)

Iya and Masha and the subtle use of contrasting colours in their garments

Victoria Miroshnichenko plays the gangly, former Russian World War II soldier Iya, euphemistically called “Beanpole” because of her lanky height and simplicity. More importantly most characters in the film are aware that Iya is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   As the film progresses, the viewer will note that “Beanpole” in the film is quite the opposite of the intelligent PTSD afflicted Will (Ben Foster) in the interesting US film Leave No Trace (2018). The PTSD afflicted Iya, who dotes on her military colleague and friend Maya’s toddler son Pashka, unwittingly suffocates the child during a seizure, a fascinating sequence in Beanpole.

Two inseparable friends: Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) (left)  and Iya the Beanpole

Going by the title of the film Beanpole, one would assume the tale is on Iya’s life. But co-scriptwriters Balagov and Terekhov have scripted a tale of two military women, the simple-minded Iya (Beanpole) afflicted with PTSD and her close street-smart friend and colleague Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who has lost her son Pashka while he was in the care of Iya and cannot conceive another child due to war injuries.  The film ignores Masha’s past as it concentrates on her two current objectives: one, to get married to a loving husband, and two, to bring up another child to replace the dead Pashka to fulfil her motherly instincts.

A fascinating and powerful interaction: Sasha's mother
meets Masha, her aspiring future daughter-in-law over a formal meal

Masha does find her ideal “future” husband in another military man Sasha, who is smitten by Masha and intends to marry her.  But Masha’s dream of marriage is short-lived following a fascinating encounter with Sasha’s mother over a formal dinner.  That dinner sequence depicts a war without bullets fired or tantrums exhibited by either woman. The iciness in the conversation and camera positioning will probably not be forgotten in a long while by any astute film viewer. Sasha’s mother was simply magnetic in delicately underscoring the social differences between her son and her future daughter-in-law. The build-up and the eventual break-up of Masha and Sasha are not of two individuals in love but indicative of the differences between the artificial social equality in the military with its uniforms and the real world where money and class matters either in Leningrad (now St Petersburg, where Bolagov and Sokurov have spent most of their lives).

Masha identifies the possible sperm donor for Iya's future child,
as a replacement for Masha's dead child Pashka
(Note the colour of clothes and the background in the shot)

Balagov’s Beanpole trudges onward to grapple with Masha’s second objective of bringing up a child that she can call her own to replace her dead child Pashka. The film then presents a new complex scenario. Masha cannot conceive a second child due to a war injury. Masha gets her close friend Iya, who is not interested in having sex with men, to conceive a child to fulfil Masha’s emotional needs following the death of Pashka. The outcome is not as important as are the effects of war on men and women alike off the battlefield that Beanpole presents as a larger picture.

Beanpole mirrors Alexeivich’s 1983 Nobel-prize-winning literary work that explored the myriad problems faced by women soldiers after a war concludes.  There is hardly any political undercurrent in Beanpole except when 6 year old Pashka is asked to bark like a dog by friendly elders and is stupefied and unable o respond.  An elder comments that there are no dogs left in Leningrad for Pahka to know how they bark because they have all been eaten—a rare indirect political comment of the food situation within the film.  Beanpole is thus essentially a social and psychological commentary on the plight of women soldiers after a war, either traumatised or injured for life.

The camera accentuates white in this shot by intentionally
incorporating the floor to add white colour to the shot

Beanpole is a significant film as it introduces a major new talent among contemporary Russian filmmakers in Kantemir Balagov, who writes his own original screenplays, and deserved his Best director award at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.  The various honours at other film festivals for its cinematography (Kseniya Sereda) and the performances of the two female leads confirm the intrinsic worth of this film. A remarkable cinematic work of 2019 from a promising 29-year-old man making his second feature film!

P.S.  Beanpole is one of the author’s top 20 films of 2019. The film won the Best Director award and the FIPRESCI prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival; the Silver Apricot Award at the Yeravan Film Festival of Armenia; the Best Film award at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema; the Impact Award at the Stockholm Film Festival; Achievement in Cinematography and Best Screenplay awards at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards; the Special Jury Prize at the Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival;  the FIPRESCI prize at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (USA); and the Best Actress award at both the Antalya Golden Orange Festival (Turkey) and the Sakhalin International Film Festival (Russia). Two films mentioned in this review The Thin Red Line and Leave No Trace have been reviewed earlier on this blog (click the names of the films to access the reviews).