Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Sunday

5

April 2020

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Classic Film: Two or Three Things I Know About Her

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A film like Two or Three Things I Know About Her (original French title Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle) retains a certain sense of timelessness by the very nature of its premise. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 treatise on consumerism largely functions without a narrative. In the absence of structure, each viewing represents an individualized experience that’s rather difficult to replicate.

The closest thing the film has to a plot centers around Juliette Jeanson (Marina Vlady) going about her daily life. Juliette’s life is much like many other upper-class women, except for the sex work that she engages in, interspersed with her otherwise mundane existence. Juliette especially comes alive in a series of musings aimed directly at the camera in sequences that feel sort of like breaking the fourth wall.

Godard repeatedly demonstrates a fascination with language throughout the film, identifying it as the house that man lives in, both a vital tool and a limiting asset. We understand each other through our shared ability to communicate. Without it, we have nothing, except Godard isn’t entirely sold on language’s ability to accurately capture moments.

Language describes circumstances with broad strokes. One can describe a person going to a car wash, but the duty of determining what moments deserve illustration is a flawed proposition at best. A moment cannot be fully depicted no matter our efforts or best intentions.

In terms of capturing the essence of a film, narrative helps anchor the audience in the themes that are to be presented. By tossing narrative out of the window, Godard forces the audience to engage with film as a medium purely on his terms. It’s an uncomfortable yet deeply satisfying exercise.

The same holds true for the role of the critic, to provide a review within accepted standards. The critic does not move through a film, line by line, to provide a tracking poll of sorts by which the entire narrative must be judged. Such a practice would be futile if attempted, and unreadable if completed.

If a character turns her head to the left and the narrator tells you it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s there on screen, a fact that tells us little about the overarching answer. If things are significant because they are present, much of what we understand about art must be completely wrong.

Godard displays much contempt for the efforts of advertising to use language to influence society, fearing that their success will eat away at humanity’s ability to interpret meaning. Capitalism reduces the human experiences to numbers and bottom lines, consumption as the goal rather than the means.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her is a very difficult film to engage with. The lack of cohesive narrative constantly forces the audience to be at unease with their own understanding of what’s happening on the screen. It does not, however, skirt the traditional of question of good or bad.

Godard found his success in creating a film that keeps its audience guessing long after the credits have stopped rolling. Entertainment is a secondary concern, but there are ample pleasures to be found in taking the mind for a jog through his absurdist landscape. Two or Three Things I Know About Her is practically impossible to fully understand, but the act of grappling with the material is a delightful exercise.

 

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Thursday

2

April 2020

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Tiger King Proves Sometimes Reality Is Better Than the Dream

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America finds itself in a period desperate for distractions to take our minds off the collective sense of anxiety many of us feel toward the present state of affairs. Cooped up at home, a narrative like Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness scratches this itch perfectly, the kind of train wreck you can’t look away from even as every fiber of your being feels dirty for having spent time with its subjects. The best true crime stories are the ones that are too absurd to work as pieces of fiction, with twist after twist designed to completely overload the senses.

At the heart of Tiger King is its titular subject, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, a man of poor taste in just about every sense of the word. For years, Joe Exotic reigned over the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a small zoo in Oklahoma. Joe Exotic owned hundreds of tigers, earning the wrath of animal rights activist Carole Baskin, who operates the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Florida. Exotic’s efforts to wage war against Baskin left him financially ruined, leading to him attempting to hire a hit man to murder her. A 2018 arrest for those efforts, among other charges, lead to twenty-two-year sentence, which he is currently serving.

Tiger King uses extensive footage filmed over several years, allowing the filmmakers to capture Joe Exotic and all of his antics before he found himself behind bars. Exotic is a natural entertainer of the Trumpian variety, a man perpetually capable of stooping to new lows with his asinine behavior and lust for the spotlight. Much like his zoo, Exotic appeals in the same way as toilet humor, a juvenility perfect for Netflix, where the audience can laugh along without feeling ashamed for their enjoyment.

The seven-part series covers a wide range of topics beyond the Exotic/Baskin feud, itself full of subplots. Fellow tiger enthusiast Bhagavan “Doc” Antle receives an extended profile, a similarly vile character who runs a preserve/harem in South Carolina. Tiger King strikes at the heart of the types of people who engage in the shady business of exotic animals, an expensive endeavor that leads to plenty of abuse, both of the animals and the employees lured to the premises.

A Shakespearian tragedy fitting for this dystopian modern era, Tiger King finds a sense of mesmerizing beauty in its perpetual race down the gutter. Joe Exotic is a truly terrible human being, selfish and vindictive, hardly a suitable protagonist or anti-hero. Likewise, he’s not wholly a villain either, having a kind of weird charm that tugs at the heartstrings, if only for a moment. In Baskin, the show finds a suitable foil, herself an odd character who walks under a perpetual cloud of suspicion after her husband mysteriously vanished in 1997. There are no heroes in Tiger King.

The great triumph of the series lies with its utter lack of moral message. Owning exotic animals is bad, yes, but that’s also something already well-apparent to many viewers in the year 2020. Tiger King isn’t all that concerned with stating the obvious. Instead, the series mostly just focuses on the absurd nature of its narrative. Each episode contains more plot twists than most movies could get away with. It is magnificent entertainment.

To call it a guilty-pleasure almost doesn’t feel right considering all that’s going on in the country. Pleasure is in short supply. Joe Exotic is a seemingly-endless supply of amusement. Tiger King isn’t just must-watch. It’s the perfect narrative for our times.

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Wednesday

25

March 2020

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Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible Provides a Thorough Look at the Artist’s Career

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Part of the fun of learning about Marcel Duchamp is through all the ways he transgressed the artistic community, particularly those seeking to curate its collective tastes. The man who crafted the eminently beautiful Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 also willed Fountain into existence, a urinal signed under a pseudonym. The documentary Marcel Duchamp: The Art of the Possible aims to shed some light on his storied career.

The documentary covers an impressive amount of ground, from his early days as a working artist in Paris to his later success in America. The documentary wastes little time on his upbringing, instead dedicating the bulk of the runtime to his artistic portfolio. Duchamp lived a very fascinating life. The film does a good job pacing itself through a number of quite complex subjects.

Duchamp helped flip the script on the notion of the canon, submitting works like Fountain to contests that billed themselves as “juryless,” yet still rejected his piece seemingly on its merits, a puzzling contradiction. The film does a great job explaining how Duchamp valued the importance of an audience in receiving the work, themselves taking part in the artistic process. It’s a dynamic that plays very well on screen, as the audience watching at home must also play a role in receiving the material.

Practically the entire documentary is presented through a collection of talking heads interviews, with images of Duchamp and his work constantly shown on screen. There’s a certain practicality to this approach, needing to present and explain vast amounts of content in a limited amount of time. The consistency of this approach does get a little boring at times, maybe a bit too repetitive for its own good.

There is also a sense of irony in having esteemed members of the artistic community present their takes on Duchamp for the whole narrative, giving the canon the final word. Duchamp is hardly presented as a man who would be very fond of this approach. For a man who spent his life innovating his medium, The Art of the Possible feels a bit bland in presenting a narrative that essentially looks like an extended cut of the kind of preview film that would be shown at an actual museum.

The Art of the Possible thoroughly tackles Duchamp’s career, albeit through a traditional method at odds with its subject. It doesn’t seek to embody Duchamp’s methods, but it is a worthwhile watch for people interested in learning more about his work. A more creative narrative might have tried to flip the script, but Duchamp’s life is pretty wild as it is.

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Tuesday

24

March 2020

3

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Star Trek: Picard Is Full of Missed Opportunities

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The very premise of Star Trek: Picard fulfilled a longtime wish for many Trek fans. Jean-Luc may be one of the most popular characters in the franchise, but the episodic adventures in Star Trek: The Next Generation frequently impeded the character development that would fully utilize the talents of an actor like Patrick Stewart. Serialization offered a chance to take the character to new horizons glimpsed in TNG episodes like “Family” and “The Inner Light.” Unfortunately, the series just doesn’t seem to know where to take him.

Picard is a series that can’t resist the allures of the past, often at the expense of its own narrative and original characters. This dynamic creates strain on the necessary exposition for the other series regulars, forced to eat up large chunks of episodes while leaving barely any room for the plot to move forward. The story moves at a glacier-slow pace, not exactly a great development for a spin-off of a show that almost always wrapped up its conflicts by the end of each episode.

Raffi (Michelle Hurd) and Rios (Santiago Cabrera) are both interesting characters, but episodes like “Broken Pieces” expose the series’ broader flaw. With such slow pacing, why would anyone who loves Star Trek want to sit and watch two people sitting on the floor of their ship bonding over their various life problems? The presentation of the new characters is bound to please nobody, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the premise of Picard isn’t exactly welcoming to new fans. For a show that’s only supposed to last a few seasons, there’s a lot of time wasted on slow-walking.

The very nature of the “daughters of Data” plotline feels quite perfunctory, a mere excuse to bring Picard out of retirement for one final ride. Data obviously means a great deal to Jean-Luc, but Soji (Isa Briones) is essentially just used as a vessel for android nostalgia. The show hasn’t given the Romulan “Artifact” narrative the time it deserves, leaving it to come across as a poor imitation of Section 31. The whole story is just a big mess.

Nostalgia can be a very toxic force in art. Picard utilized an easy opportunity to bring back fan favorites like Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Troi (Marina Sirtis), but it’s unclear why others like Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) or Bruce Maddox (John Ales), very minor characters in TNG, received so much attention when the show has its own roster of characters to worry about. All the time spent playing “remember when…” adds up pretty quickly over the course of a ten-episode season.

Picard has managed to give one legacy character a substantive arc. Though Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) had never interacted on screen with Picard prior to the series, the show has given the Voyager star plenty of moments to shine. Seven feels organic to the plot, exploring some of her old themes with regard to the Borg in a way that actually feels productive.

As for the rest of Picard, the show is a deeply frustrating experience. This is the first new Star Trek production that isn’t a prequel or reboot in close to twenty years. The world has changed quite a bit since the destruction of Romulus. So far, we haven’t really been given an opportunity to explore that.

Star Trek: Picard has all the makings of a prestige series. The sets are beautiful and the cast is excellent. Unfortunately, the pacing is just a total mess. As a captain, Jean-Luc Picard was thoroughly prepared for anything. It’s not too much to expect a series bearing his name to possess the same amount of diligence.

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Monday

9

March 2020

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The Mimic Is an Entertaining Comedy Powered by Strong Lead Performances

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One of the joys of film is the way the medium can shine a light on experiences its audience would never live through in a million years. There are all the horrifying scenarios involving murderers, and all the tedious neighbors you desperately want to avoid out of fear that they might be murderers. Or simply painfully tedious.

The Mimic stakes its territory in the latter camp, a timeless saga of high-strung protagonist forced to deal with an unsavory predicament. The Narrator (Thomas Sadoski) finds his quiet life interrupted by the Kid (Jake Robinson), who he’s worried may be a sociopath. The Kid is a pretty creepy guy, a preppy dresser with a perpetually sly look on his face. For the Narrator, this uncomfortable new presence in his life makes his skin crawl, even if he’s not always 100% sure why.

The bulk of the film relies on the back and forth between the two leads, a non-stop barrage of rapid-fire dialogue. Sadoski and Robinson are delightful to watch, carrying The Mimic with their constant banter. They fight like an old-married couple who can’t decide where to eat, an act that mostly stays amusing throughout the course of the runtime.

Director Thomas F. Mazziotti structures The Mimic almost like vignettes, each scene essentially functioning as a mini-chapter in the Narrator’s life. The sense of pacing works pretty well, keeping things feeling fresh even as familiar patterns play out. There aren’t any subplots, which puts extra-strain on the mileage between Sadoski and Robinson.

The script probably isn’t as funny as it thinks it is, but there’s enough charm to keep things interesting until it’s time to wind things down. Clocking in at just over eighty minutes, The Mimic hardly overstays its welcome, though the act definitely loses a bit of steam down the stretch. When a film relies on one trick, it’s hard to sustain the routine over the course of an entire feature.

As far as overarching messages go, The Mimic offers some interesting food for thought on the nature of individuality. The fast-paced nature of the script leaves little time for introspection, perhaps stepping on its own themes a bit by moving too fast to let the audience soak anything in. The film delivers plenty of laughs with two great lead performances, making it a worthwhile watch for those seeking an unconventional narrative to hold their attention.

 

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Sunday

8

March 2020

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Onward Is a Perfectly Fine Film from a Studio Capable of Better

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It seems likely that the early 00s will represent the same kind of legacy for Pixar that Disney Animation enjoyed throughout the 90s. The Disney Renaissance restored the company’s reputation as a leader in the genre, while Pixar established its own rather quickly, producing hit after hit. Aside from Cars 2, it’s hard to argue that Pixar has done anything to damage its stellar image, except perhaps through its shifting emphasis toward franchises.

Conceptually, Onward occupies fairly safe territory for a company like Pixar, known for challenging audiences young and old alike. The idea of two young elves going on a quest to reconnect with their long-dead father might carry more weight if this wasn’t a path Disney had walked so many times before. The Pixar magic comes alive through the stellar animation, but from a plot perspective, the film looks like territory well-staked out by the company’s competitors.

For the Lightfoot brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), adventure brings the possibility of long-awaited dreams fulfilled. Barley is an RPG-obsessed teen hoping to see his passions played out in real-time, while Ian hopes for a father figure to instill in him a sense of confidence. The contrast in the two brothers’ ambitions for the narrative is a little clunky, but for the most part the film manages to skirt by on sheer chemistry alone.

The voice cast is unsurprisingly top-notch. In addition to Holland and Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, and Lena Waithe supply plenty of comedy in supporting roles. The script doesn’t exactly do a whole lot for any of them, disappointing given the talent involved, but the movie rarely drags either. Pratt and Holland bring a lot of natural humor to their roles that don’t really get to shine here.

Onward is a touching narrative, though a movie destined to depress Pixar fans with its lack of ambition. A studio capable of more must live with the expectations of greatness. Onward is not great. It stakes it claim in the hall of very good.

The themes are fairly complex, the kind of stuff better absorbed by parents than their children. When loved ones die, those left behind are often put in the unsavory position of having to pick up the slack, whether they’re ready to or not. The ones who need to be taken care of quickly find themselves as the ones who need to do the caring. Onward understands the fast-moving cruelties of life.

Pixar has hit a lot of home runs. As every great hitter knows, the perfect swing is not one that always has its sights set on the fences. Onward is more of a standing double, a base hit that was never in question, yet one that lacks the suspense of a moment that’s truly grappled with something larger than itself.

For fans of Pixar, Onward might be a bit of a mixed bag. Children who are more unfamiliar with the company’s broader history may not care as much, fitting for the film’s target demographic. Onward is a safe film from a studio that frequently gnaws at its audience’s heartstrings. It’s okay to be a little upset that Pixar didn’t try to unleash the waterworks. Crying is good.

 

 

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Tuesday

3

March 2020

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A Horrendous Script Hinders Go Back to China

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A film like Go Back to China demonstrates early on the universality of coming of age narratives. Regardless of culture, the wishes of one’s parents operate like an orbital pull in many young people’s lives. Obviously the situation is a bit exacerbated when you’re financially dependent on your wealthy toy tycoon father to bankroll your spending habits.

Sasha (Anna Akana) is a pretty spoiled young woman living in Los Angeles. She wants a career in fashion, but isn’t a huge fan of the expected grind required to get here there. A phone call from her father Teddy (Richard Ng), urging her to come to China to work for a year, starts off as a nagging request that’s easy to blow off. That is, until Teddy cuts her off from her trust fund, forcing Sasha to fly across the world to learn the ins and outs of toy manufacturing.

Akana is mostly engaging in the lead role, playing Sasha with enough charm to help buoy the exceedingly privileged character throughout the story. Sasha is not particularly sympathetic, but Akana is an expressive actress capable of salvaging scenes where her character comes across rather poorly. There are some scenes where she looks quite bored, going through predictable motions, but that’s a broader problem with the film as a whole.

Director and screenwriter Emily Ting does a superb job with the production values. Go Back to China is a well-crafted film completely undone by a horrendous screenplay. Ting dumps loads of exposition in many of the scenes, forcing the actors to interact in situations that don’t look anything like normal human conversation.

The whole dynamic becomes a bit jarring after a while, a film with greats sets, lighting, and sound design that give it the feel of a first class production. That is, until you actually have to listen to the things these characters are saying that totally rip you out of the moment, instead forcing one’s attention toward all the ways this clunky script fails in its purpose. Plenty of indies struggle with their budgets, the results blatant on screen. Go Back to China doesn’t have this problem, which makes it even sadder to see such a bad screenplay.

There’s a lot to like in the way Ting frames her characters. Teddy is a pretty bad father and not a very nice man, but he’s a three-dimensional figure with a lot of depth. Ting allows Sasha to fully immerse herself in her environment without such frivolities like a romantic interest. The pieces of a great movie are almost all there, except the most glaring issue.

Go Back to China may carry some appeal for fans of coming of age narratives, but it’s a hard film to recommend. On the surface, the movie does everything it can to distinguish itself from a crowded indie film, dragged down by a screenplay that squarely rests in “made for TV” feature territory. It’s a tough sin to forgive because it’s an inexcusable offense. When everything else came together, Go Back to China lost its voice in a sea of clunky exposition.

 

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Tuesday

3

March 2020

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F*!#ing Adelaide Is a Funny, Heartfelt Look at Family Dynamics

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Do we ever truly leave home? Part of our hearts remain in the places of our origins, regardless of whether or not we want that to be the case. Home is a part of us. The Australian series Fucking Adelaide (styled as F*!#ing Adelaide) explores three adults as they come to grips with their mother selling their childhood home.

Eli (Brendan Maclean) is an aimless bartender and terrible musician. Emma (Kate Box) is the oldest of the family, who lives in Thailand after leaving the home under dubious circumstances. Kitty (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) still lives in Adelaide, living a fairly content life as she pursues art school.

Their mother, Maude (Pamela Rabe), is selling the home, leaving plenty of mixed emotions. That kind of inner turmoil is inherently contradictory, especially for Eli and Emma who have little love for Adelaide. Kitty, on the other hand kind of does, frequently hyping the city in a blatantly desperate fashion.

F*!#ing Adelaide has a lot of charm squeezed into short, laser-focused episodes that highlight a specific idea. There’s no filler or subplots, and little time is spent trying to endear the audience to the characters. The episodes present their cases very quickly without losing any emotional resonance.

The show is a drama more than a comedy. The characters are all pretty funny in their own individual ways, delivering plenty of hysterical moments, but they’re not really there to make you laugh. F*!#ing Adelaide mostly functions as a think-piece, forcing the audience to consider the perspectives of its characters.

While F*!#ing Adelaide undoubtedly carries more appeal for Australians familiar with the city’s landscape, there’s plenty of appeal for foreign audiences. Having studied in Melbourne for my semester abroad, I headed into the series with a broader knowledge of Australian geography than most Americans, but there are lot of parallels between the city and “flyover country.”

F*!#ing Adelaide doesn’t really reinvent the wheel of family dramas and its abbreviated runtimes limits the audience’s ability to endear themselves to the characters, but the show is well-crafted with a lot of heart. Each episode ends leaving you wanting more, a good place for a series to be in. Above all else, the show makes you think about your own surroundings and the peculiar relationship that many of us feel toward geography.

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Wednesday

19

February 2020

0

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Schwartz and Crystal Shine in Standing Up, Falling Down

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Show business is a terrible industry to try to make a living in. Many people fly to Los Angeles with dreams of grandeur, only to return home with empty bank accounts and a missing sense of purpose. Life rarely goes according to plan.

Standing Up, Falling Down is mostly a film about the period of time after the death of the dream. For Scott (Ben Schwartz), LA was supposed to be the beginning of something. Instead, he finds himself back in his childhood bedroom in Long Island, lost in the middle of his 30s. He finds companionship in his dermatologist Marty (Billy Crystal), an eccentric upbeat drunk who helps him find solace in his failures.

Schwartz puts forth the best performance of his career. Scott is a bit of a departure from the types of roles he’s known for on shows like Parks & Recreation or House of Lies, but the quieter tempo works well for him. It’s not a particularly challenging character to play, but Schwartz does a good job drawing sympathy for his fairly pathetic protagonist.

The film is carried off the strength of Schwartz and Crystal’s chemistry, two actors who are clearly having fun with the material. That kind of enthusiasm can be make or break for a film like Standing Up, Falling Down, which hardly reinvents the wheel. There are countless films about sad young people in America with failed careers in entertainment. The two strong performances from Crystal and Schwartz make it easy to forget that this is a story that’s been told many times before.

Standing Up, Falling Down also does a good job not biting at the low-hanging fruit that many indie films pursue. Scott has a pretty good family life and a sister Megan (Grace Gummer) who’s fairly supportive even though she’s also in a fairly dead-end job. Scott’s predicament is a life setback, not the end of the world. Director Matt Ratner is great at keeping the narrative grounded in its circumstances.

There are a few pacing issues in the third act that hinder the film a bit. The narrative is a fairly slow burn, until the time comes where it needs to start presenting something resembling a climax. The last half hour includes a couple plotlines that probably should’ve been introduced a bit earlier. For a film where the quiet moments speak the loudest volume, there comes a point where Ratner makes a bit more noise than he needs to.

Standing Up, Falling Down isn’t the most groundbreaking film in the world, but it’s a very enjoyable narrative. The ninety-minute runtime doesn’t waste a second, utilizing its best assets to sustain the film. Billy Crystal is almost always a treat to watch, evening if he’s doing something mundane like making pancakes. Ben Schwartz proves he’s capable of being more than an obnoxious loud mouth, a moving film that hits all the right notes, even if you can see them coming from a mile away. Sometimes for a movie, that’s more than enough.

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Saturday

15

February 2020

0

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire Is a Masterpiece

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LGBTQ people have been around since the beginning of time, natural subjects for period pieces. The biggest obstacle is the historical discrimination shown toward our community, limiting the types of narratives that can be told. “Happily ever after” isn’t a concept that gay people got to enjoy until fairly recently. The new French film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes on lesbian love at the end of the eighteenth century, a tall order that writer and director Céline Sciamma tackles with ease.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter commissioned to craft a portrait in secret on an island in Brittany. Her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), resists her mother’s efforts to get her to pose, as she does not want to be married off. Marianne is tasked with spending time with Héloïse to learn her features well enough to paint without her subject’s consent.

Sciamma’s greatest strength as a director is her ability to capture powerful quiet moments between her two stars. Appropriately, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a slow burn. The film has a very small cast and not a whole lot happens over the course of its two-hour runtime. The pacing works very well, as Sciamma crafts her scenes in a way that constantly leaves you wanting more.

Merlant and Haenal are spectacular. The narrative unfolds over about two week’s time, the kind of stretch ripe for the passion of summer flings. The two present a compelling romance that unfolds fairly naturally, pressed up against the confines of reality. Love thrives in the vacuum of brevity.

Sciamma is superb at crafting scenes that speak volumes without dialogue. There are plenty of dreamy sequences that play around with consciousness. The spooky setting of the island manor also lends itself well to this dynamic. It’s the perfect environment for a passionate fling that fills the mind with love and longing.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire perfectly demonstrates how to depict gay love in a period setting without caving to broader societal expectations. Heartbreak is natural in a world that denied the validity of LGBTQ romance for so long, but we also live in a modern environment that’s grown tired of narratives that bask in gay pain. Too many films have relished in the drama of inevitable breakups. The time is right for a different kind of story.

In many ways, LGBTQ narratives aren’t exactly made for members of our own community. Many are made from the perspective of heterosexual cisgender men, or designed to appeal to an audience who doesn’t know what it’s like to love someone you’re not supposed to be with. The realities of these situations are rarely as dramatic as cinema makes them out to be.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire understands the realities of forbidden love. Moments come, and then they leave. What’s left is the sense of fulfillment brought about by the experience of having felt that burning passion. Love is love, even when it’s not allowed to last forever. Few things ever do.

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