Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Movie Reviews Archive

Friday

17

April 2020

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The Painted Bird Is a Harrowing Trek Through the Horrors of War

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There are more films based on World War II than anyone can reasonably count. Based on a 1965 novel of the same name, The Painted Bird carries with it a certain unspoken understanding of the horrors that took place during that monstrous time. Filmed on 35mm black and white film while utilizing sparse dialogue, director Václav Marhoul possesses a masterful grasp of the unspoken, crafting a quiet, harrowing epic.

The narrative follows a young boy (Petr Kotlar) as he makes his way through war-torn Eastern Europe, trying to return home after the death of his aunt. The boy finds a few kind souls along his journey, but the vast majority of the people he comes across treat him as subhuman, treating him as a slave among plenty of other horrors. Humanity is scarce across the savaged region.

Marhoul divides the film up into segments divided by a character’s name. This approach works quite well for the nearly three-hour runtime, preventing the audience from getting too overwhelmed by all the terrors. The narrative is pretty relentlessly brutal right from the start, sequence after sequence of jaw-dropping imagery that never really lets up.

The boy functions as a reactionary protagonist, spending most of the film responding to the circumstances laid out before him. Kotlar is an excellent young actor, mostly demonstrating the boy’s emotions through nonverbal cues. Hollywood mainstays Stellan Skarsgård and Harvey Keitel pop up briefly, but the film belongs to Kotlar.

The film uses a mix of Slavic, Czech, German, and Russian, but dialogue is deployed in such a way that the narrative almost feels more like a silent film. Full scenes go by with barely any need for subtitles. The landscapes are beautiful, but the black and white cinematography and horrific actions depicted prevent the audience from spending too much time admiring the views.

The Painted Bird does take a bit of time to find its footing, a slow burn content to take its time. The film picks up steam in the second act, having laid out the terms of its narrative in a way that keeps you engaged without constantly guessing what will happen next. Though largely a bleak story, Marhoul finds small slivers of hope in places where you’d least expect to find them.

The runtime is a bit of a liability. Three hours is a long time to spend with a young protagonist who barely speaks, but the length of time helps solidify the hero’s journey, a duration designed to be as epic as his voyage. The narrative is designed to be exhausting, which Marhoul achieves early on. A few of the scenes appear to exist to serve that goal exclusively, a dynamic that’s perhaps a little too demanding on the audience.

The Painted Bird is a fantastic film that journeys to the very bottom of humanity depravity. It is certainly not for everyone, but Marhoul crafted a minimalistic masterpiece that packs an emotional wallop. Few narratives leave you quite as drained by the end, in desperate need of a hug.

 

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Thursday

16

April 2020

2

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Sonic the Hedgehog Undercuts Its Hero by Turning Him into a Generic Bore

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Sega built its entire video game empire off the concept of edginess. The company’s “Sega does what Nintendon’t” marketing campaign in the 90s set it apart from the family friendly image of its primary competitor. While much of that contrarian messaging was abandoned by the time Sega left the home console market, fond memories of the Genesis’ mature library live on in the hearts of many gamers.

Sonic the Hedgehog exuded cool from every blue quill in his body. Sega’s mascot wasn’t exactly edgy or risqué, but conducted his ring-collecting business with an aura of hip strikingly absent from Nintendo’s signature Italian plumber. Sonic served as a postmodern icon for what family friendly could mean in the 90s.

The Sonic present in 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog is decidedly not cool. He’s not quite a loser, but instead a sad desperate loner with no friends. He lives an isolated life where his only company are comic books and the speed that allows him to play sports by himself. This Sonic is the kind of person you might feel bad for, but also probably wouldn’t want to hang out with either.

Sonic the Hedgehog takes Sega’s standard bearer for the concept of cool and commits the unthinkable. Sonic is boring. He’s not very funny. His interactions with local sheriff Tom (James Marsden) possess the makings of a buddy comedy, but the whole endeavor is too desperate to be enjoyable. The whole ordeal is just plain sad.

As arch nemesis Dr. Robotnik, Jim Carrey supplies most of the film’s laughs. Carrey puts forth a zany, over-the-top effort full of physical comedy reminiscent of his 90s output. It’s vintage Carrey, albeit with a little rust around the edges that becomes more obvious as the film progresses. He’s not exactly phoning his performance in, but maybe gets a little tired of revisiting the past.

The plot is pretty silly standard fare for a children’s movie based on a video game. Sonic travels to San Francisco in search of magic mushrooms to escape from Robotnik, but of course the real treasure are the friends made along the way. The generic morals aren’t exactly a problem, but it’s deeply bland stuff for a character crafted to be the antithesis of the mundane.

Is Sonic the Hedgehog really supposed to be a kid’s movie? The simple answer is yes, but it’s clear the filmmakers intended to play hard toward the 90s nostalgic crowd, many of whom may have kids of their own. Carrey’s presence further solidifies the legacy play, but this Sonic isn’t designed to be pleasing to anyone except for young children.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a pretty depressing experience. There is a temptation to disregard its futilities as the product of adults getting their hopes up for an experience crafted for children, but it doesn’t try very hard to be a good kid’s movie either. Sonic is a cool character. It’s unclear why he needed to be so generic and lame in this narrative. Everyone deserves better.

 

 

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Thursday

16

April 2020

0

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Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans Is a Loving Victory Lap for the Franchise

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Disney used to have an informal “65-episode rule” that applied to practically all of its television series. This approach kept costs down, allowed the company to quickly stockpile a syndication library, and prevented Disney Channel from being overly tied to one program. Obviously there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but this method was fairly standard practice across much of children’s programming.

The original Teen Titans series ran for 65 episodes from 2003-2006. Cartoon Network earned the ire of many when it cancelled the popular adaptation of the DC Comic’s superhero team. Its 2013 spinoff, Teen Titans Go!, has proved vastly more successful, producing 278 episodes (at half the runtime of the original) so far, along with a feature film adaptation, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. While far more comedic in nature, the presence of the entire original voice cast gives the spinoff a natural sense of continuity to its predecessor.

Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans is a concept seemingly unimaginable to anyone who grew up watching weekday afternoon and Saturday morning cartoon blocks, full of shows who saw their lifespans cut short at the 65-episode marker. That is the way television used to work. The past rarely returns to the present, except in the form of streaming services that cater to nostalgia.

While nostalgia obviously drives the concept, Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans is not a film that overly relies on the past to drive its narrative. Fans of the original series will find plenty to enjoy in seeing the old interpretations of Robin, Starfire, Raven, Cyborg, and Beast Boy, but the plot anchors itself on much firmer footing. Raven’s father Trigon drives the plot, a compelling father/daughter conflict that works well as a plot that doesn’t need to take up the film’s whole attention.

Teen Titans Go! is hardly a show about actual fighting, but the action sequences in the film are quite fun. The 2003 team work well as the “serious Titans,” serving as the foil to their more cartoonish counterparts. It’s more of the 2013 roster’s movie, fitting given their popularity, but each character gets plenty of time to shine. The voice cast do a great job juggling duel roles.

The film is a shining example of how to please longtime fans without relying too hard on nostalgia. The jokes are well written, enjoyable both for casual viewers and diehard fans of the comics. It’s an inclusive style of comedy that doesn’t overstay its welcome with a lean 77-minute runtime.

Fans of the original series who don’t appreciate the lighthearted tone of Go! might find similar disappointment, but Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans is a very entertaining extra chapter in the Teen Titans chronology. As a film, it’s not quite as full of laughs as its cinematic predecessor, but it’s also playing toward a different objective. The Titans have crafted an impressive television continuity over the past seventeen years. The film plays homage to their legacy while keeping its eyes on the present.

 

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Monday

13

April 2020

0

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Classic Film: The Draughtman’s Contract

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Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtman’s Contract revels in its take on convention, a kind of satire played with such a straight face that it could have been easily based on a nineteenth century novel. Set in the English Wiltshire in the late 1600s, the film follows an artist in his efforts to craft twelve landscapes of a country house. Filled with murder and cuckoldry, the narrative leisurely unloads on its audience, refusing to bend to any conventional understanding of storytelling.

Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) is an amusing character, though hardly the sort designed to be much of a protagonist. Neville is very particular about the atmosphere, forcing strict guidelines on the household to avoid parts of the property and certain parts of the day. The Herbert family must cater to Neville’s every whim, including his sexual desires, though the boredom of country life gives the routine an added sense of purpose.

The characters are distant, both in a figurative and literal sense. Greenaway frames most scenes to resemble portraits, rarely adjusting the camera. Without close-ups, the true point of view is hidden, or perhaps left up to the audience. The freedom of interpretation carries a liberating burden, leaving one to decide what matters on their own terms.

The costumes are absolutely delightful. Each character is dressed about as flamboyantly as possible. The excesses of the aristocracy are in full display, a group determined to be measures by the layers and tulle on their bodies. If it’s meant to be parody, Greenaway assures that it’s carried out with as much of a straight face as possible.

Greenaway’s success lies in his ability to be simultaneously distant and welcoming, a charm that buoys the film’s peculiar narrative. Much of the action centers around Neville’s work, but The Draughtman’s Contract isn’t too concerned with his artistic output. It’s a murder mystery that doesn’t care much about resolution. Simply put, it’s a film that gives the audience significant leeway to draw from it whatever they will.

Some may find that approach unwieldy, a film unconcerned with articulating a message or with whether or not its audience can relate to its main character. The Draughtman’s Contract is crafted to force one to think, in the absence of any obvious conclusion. The narrative manages to be compelling while divorced from any necessity to interpret its findings.

Rare are the kinds of stories that exhibit such comfort in the unresolved. Film supplies its audience with brief portraits into their characters’ lives that are implied to carry much grander weight, much like a landscape intends to capture the full essence of its subject. Life is rarely that convenient. More lies beneath the surface, either for people to discover or to be the subject of endless speculation. The Draughtman’s Contract delights in the ways it can manipulate its audience’s emotions both during the film’s runtime and for a good while after.

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Friday

10

April 2020

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Classic Film: Made in U.S.A.

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Some films are so inaccessible that the mind can’t help but gravitate toward the unique particulars of their creation as a way to explore the labyrinth. Shot concurrently with Two or Three Things I Know About Her, it is as if Jean-Luc Godard crafted Made in U.S.A. as a way to break away from what few singular strands of convention were present in the former’s narrative. Based at least in part on The Jugger by Donald E. Westlake and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, as well as its film adaptation by Howard Hawks, the film found itself exiled from American cinema for decades due to complications surrounding the rights.

Made in U.S.A. can hardly be said to be an adaptation of much of anything. There are odes of crime fiction that draw parallels to Chandler’s work, but Godard doesn’t have plot on his mind. The film essentially functions without a plot, though its narrative is so splintered that it barely appears to function at all.

Anna Karina mostly carries the film as Paula, who encounters her dead lover in a hotel room. Paula interacts with plenty of gangsters. The aura of Walt Disney looms large over the film, a figure at odds with the bleak nature of noir crime. Godard plays around with left and right repeatedly throughout the film, challenging his audience to see outside the binary. If Disney represents one pillar of the industry, with Humphrey Bogart at the other, Godard wishes to float around the clouds above them.

The color scheme of the film is absolutely beautiful. Godard paints with a palette of primary colors, mainly red and blues against a landscape of 60s Paris. For practically that reason alone, the film is worth a watch, if only to enjoy a time period where fashion enjoyed such a radical simplicity.

Made in the U.S.A. is the product of Godard’s efforts to make something that in no way, shape, or form resembles a product. Movies, the kind that Disney still puts out to this day, have beginnings, middles, and ends. Everything in life follows this same pattern, as does Made in U.S.A. from a broader standpoint. The big difference being that the audience is constantly left without the typical narrative tools through which one typically mines enjoyment from the experience.

By venturing too deep into the abstract, Godard relinquishes some of the impact his words might carry when aimed at a more conventional subject. There is plenty of Godard’s anti-war sentiments present in the film’s rather political third act. Paris, France, and life itself bear the burdens of the wars that came before us.

Godard has quite a lot to say about the cyclical nature of life’s establishments, the forces that reign over his political and entertainment realms. Made in U.S.A. often struggles to articulate these messages mostly because it isn’t very interested in letting the audience in on its thought processes. Godard found great successes in most of his other 60s output, but Made in U.S.A. is a satisfying experience for fans of his work looking to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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Sunday

5

April 2020

0

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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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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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Sunday

8

March 2020

0

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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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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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