With all this free time thanks to the COVID pandemic, it gave me a good chance to catch up on a lot of things undone. One of which was write reviews for films I didn’t review soon enough the first time. One such film is Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. I saw it in its entirety shortly after the Oscars. It’s a film that’s intriguing to watch.
The film begins with a painting class for young women. The teacher is Marianne, an acclaimed painter. The students are to paint a portrait of her. One of her students notices one of her paintings: that of a woman with her dress on fire. She asks Marianne what it’s titled. She responds “Portrait of a lady on fire.”
The film flashes to years earlier, when a man in a rowboat rows Marianne to a remote island in Brittany. She is commissioned to paint a portrait of a noblewoman named Heloise who is to be married off to Milanese nobleman. Her mother, the Countess, will allow her to stay in the building and be served by the maid Sophie. Painting Heloise will be a tricky thing. She does not want to pose for paintings as she does not want to be married off. She attended a convent, but her sister’s suicide prompted her return and her engagement.
Marianne decides it is possible. She just has to act as her companion and remember her features in order to paint her in secret. However Marianne notices the hurt inside Heloise as Heloise tries to jump off a cliff to her death. Marianne successfully stops her. Over time, Heloise learns of Marianne’s artistic passions including playing on the harpsichord. Marianne plays her the Presto of summer for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Heloise is captivated with it.
Marianne finishes the portrait, but feels she has to let Heloise know the truth of why she’s here. Heloise is critical of the painting and Marianne destroys it promptly. To the surprise of her mother, who is about to leave for Italy for some time, Heloise is willing to have Marianne do a portrait of her.
Over time as Marianne paints the portrait of Heloise, their bond grows. Especially over the reading of Orpheus and Eurydice. The maid Sophie reveals she’s pregnant and doesn’t want the baby. The two help her have an abortion through violent exercise. Sophie is included in the friendship with the two. The three go to a bonfire surrounded by women as they sing. It’s there Marianne sees Heloise with her dress on fire. Overnight, Marianne is haunted by images of Heloise in a wedding dress.
It’s when the two are alone together in a cave that Marianne confesses her love to Heloise. The two share their first kiss. The romance grows as Marianne continues with the portrait of Heloise. Marianne does other artwork too like sketching the performing of the abortion on Sophie and even sketching a naked picture of herself on page 28 in one of Heloise’s books, by her request. However the fun is cut short as Heloise’s mother returns. The portrait is completed and both Heloise and the Countess are happy with what they see.
SPOILER WARNING: Ending Revealed In This Paragraph. Marianne is about to leave with her work being completed, but then sees Heloise one last time: in a wedding dress just like in her dream. Marianne says she did see her twice since. The first time in a painting of her with her child and a book open to page 28. The second time was from a distance at a symphony concert. She could see from a distance she was overcome with emotion when the Summer suite of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was played.
There’s no question the film is LGBT themed. The film is a fictional story. Nevertheless it does tell a lot in what it shows. It’s a chance meeting between a painter and her reluctant hurting subject. It’s after the mother leaves that the place goes from a place under control to the place the three women can live out the lives they were meant to live. It’s there Heloise can reveal she’s a lesbian like Marianne and she loves her. It’s there when a pregnant Sophie can have her baby aborted at her will. It’s also a place where the common women all gather together at a bonfire and sing. It almost feels like a ‘womyn’s’ film. However it tells more. The women know that once the mother returns, everything will be back to the way it was. Marianne knows her love that was meant to be can’t be. And so does Heloise. We shouldn’t forget that even though this is a fictional story, this was a time when same-sex love was criminalized and abortion was illegal.
Another element of the film is how the story tells itself through art. It may be about a painter who’s hired to paint her subject, but it’s like art of all kind is important for the storytelling. It’s also music that stirs emotion. It’s the discussion about Orpheus and Eurydice between the two. It’s the various drawings Marianne did. It’s of the painting of Heloise that would reveal who her true love was. The mix of various forms of art and feeling, both of passion and of hurt, come into telling the story of this film. Even the bonfire song where the women celebrate, but Heloise makes obvious is still hurting inside, plays an important role. The scene where Heloise’s dress is burning, but she acts like she’s unaffected will remind you why it’s not the dress on fire but the lady on fire.
This film was out during the VIFF. I only saw the last half of it because I was busy during ushering during the first half. That’s why I don’t include it as part of my VIFF reviews. It was only in February just after the Oscars that I finally saw it in its entirety. I’m glad there was a second chance to see it. It’s too bad it was completely snubbed out of the Oscars. For those wondering what France’s entry for the Oscar of Best Foreign Language Film was, it was Les Miserables and it was nominated. This film however was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Screenplay Award.
Top acclaim should be given to director/writer Celine Sciamma. A lesbian herself, she did a very good job not just bringing her story to life but also creating an array of imagery and adding an atmosphere to it. It’s quite an experience to watch. The acting from the two main actresses, Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel were excellent too. You could tell as much from their moments of silence as you can from their moments of dialogue. It will also leave you undecided which of the two is the lead actress, or if they’re both the lead actresses. Luama Bajrami is also a good addition to the film. She slowly makes her presence in. The biggest quality of the film is the cinematography from Claire Mathon. Her cinematography added the color and the feel to the film and has a lot to do with its excellence.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a one-of-a-kind film that showcases great cinematography and allows for the images to contribute a lot to the storytelling. It’s a fictional story that’s very picturesque and worth admiring.
There has been a lot of anticipation of what will win Best Picture for the past two months. Lately the recently-released 1917 has become the front-runner. Does it have what it takes to win it?
One thing we should keep in mind is that this is not a completely true story that takes place during World War I on April 6, 1917. This is a story about a messenger delivering a message during the war. According to Sam Mendes, this is a story that has been lodged with him as a child. It’s quite likely the stories came while listening to the tales his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, would tell. In fact he dedicates the film to him ‘for telling us the stories.’
Another thing we should remember about World War I is not just how it would be the most brutal war in history before World War II, but also of how it changed how wars are fought. In the past, soldiers would fight on horses with swords. Here in World War I, it was mostly ammunition related which made horse fighting useless from this point on. Also with the airplane being invented back in 1903, this was the first war ever that would involve airfighting. That would present a new danger for soldiers fighting on the ground as they would also have to avoid shooting from the air.
We should also take into account that despite the advances in warfare, communication between infantries were limited. It seems odd to see the need for a message to stop a battle to be sent through two men. I remember seeing messages submitted in such fashion in Lincoln which was set during the Civil War. One in today’s modern world would find ‘walking’ this message from the trenches to former enemy territory to the infantry to be an odd thing, considering the technologies we now have. We shouldn’t forget that during World War I, the most communication they had was either Morse Code or landline telephone. As you would see when the scene approaches, the infantry of which the leader would need to receive the message would have no access to any of those forms of communication. Telephone lines were cut out in the field and ‘walking’ the message to the infantry would be the only way they can be reached.
We’ve seen war movies in the past. Most war movies consist of frequent battles and action scenes. Mostly to stir up excitement for the purpose of being an action movie. This is a different story. This is a message of two men who are given the responsibility to deliver a message to a battalion to cease fighting and prevent huge loss. This is not just a message a soldier has to relay to prevent a devastating battle, but one in which threatens his brother. Blake not only must deliver the message but have someone else as the second should one die. He chooses his best friend Schofield who’s reluctant at first. The two put themselves out in the mission but encounter danger after danger. Blake is stabbed to death and then it becomes Schofield’s mission to deliver the message. This is a story that focuses less on battles and more on getting a task done. If you get into the story, you will see this is a task which will put one in the middle of the horrors of war. This being a war movie, there are scenes of action and intensity. Those are scenes that can’t be compromised in a war movie and there’s no compromise here. This film also shows a lot of the horrors and devastations caused during World War I like a devastated town, a brutal plane crash, rat-infested areas, bodies left around decaying, and even how every soldier had to see people from another army as the enemy. No exceptions. This story is a telling account of what those fighting in the war had to deal with.
I know I’ve seen many films by Steven Spielberg where he not only tells a war story but also shows how the war was done back then. Often when he does his story that occurs during times of war, it’s like we receive a lesson of how war was done and are even reminded of the politics and hostilities of the time. Sam Mendes takes a different approach in telling his story in 1917. It’s not as telling as how World War I was done as a Spielberg movie would be, but it does remind you of many horrors a soldier would endure. Keep in mind, this is a single story of a message to be delivered and the treacherous journey to deliver it. One can go through enough horrors in that one journey to know how much war is hell. Even the stories from one person is enough to be a telling account.
Mendes does do something in which Spielberg never did in any of his war movies. Mendes makes this a ‘follow-around’ story. I’ve seen films which have been cases where the story is told by following the lead protagonist around. It’s added to the story in most cases. Here in this film, it not only tells the story but makes one part of the journey. It makes the audience experience the horrors and dangers as they happen. Another addition to the story is how it makes like this film is all one take. It’s not really a single take for almost two hours. In fact I saw in Birdman how they’re able to make a film set in real-time appear to be only one take through some cinematography and editing angles. This is the same here where it does an excellent job of making it look like one take from start to finish. There are many times in which the story is done in real-time and there are time elapses where the audience won’t notice. Nevertheless it works for the film and for the storytelling.
Top acclaim has to go to Sam Mendes. I have something to tell you all. Back when I first arrived in Vancouver, I celebrated my first weekend there watching American Beauty in the movie theatres. It left me captivated from start to finish and I never checked my watch once! Which was rarely the case for me back then. That film, as well as other films that made 1999 a landmark year for film, and the Oscar race that followed would kick-start my enthusiasm for film and the Oscar Race.
Mendes does an excellent job in directing the story and using multiple angles that add to the story instead of distract. The story in which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is actually the very first feature-length film script both have written! Wilson-Cairns however has had more experience as she’s written for television and various short films. This is a unique story and a unique way in filmmaking of telling the story. The story succeeds in delivering excitement and intensity as the viewer watches it. The journey ends in a manner different from how the viewer would expect it to end, but it ends on the right note. It even ends on a personal note as Schofield confronts Blake with the bad news. The ending is possibly the most human note of the film and it reminds you of the dignity of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to fight or prevent tyranny. I admire Mendes and Wilson-Cairns for incorporating that in the story.
As for acting, this is a film that doesn’t allow too much in terms of a developed ensemble cast. Many action films and war films usually don’t have room for well-developed acting; it’s mostly action-oriented. Even the role of the protagonist Schofield, played by George MacKay, is not exactly a role with too much dimension. I do give it credit as the film is more about the story than it is about the characters. Nevertheless I do admire for MacKay delivering a solid performance with a role that lacked dimension. Actually he succeeds in giving the role its most feeling at the very end. The acting of the main supporting role of Dean-Charles Chapman was also very good. His role was given more feeling as this was the character’s brother he was most concerned about. Chapman also does a good job with his role. Most of the other supporting roles had minimal screen time in the film. Nevertheless the performances of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Maaser and Richard Madden were well-acted despite how limited their roles were.
The film also has a lot of stand-out technical efforts too. First is the cinematography of Roger Deakins which is unique for a war-film and it adds to the thrills and excitement. Next is the film editing by Lee Smith who successfully makes it look like a single take. Next is set designers Lee Sandales and Dennis Gassner for recreating the trenches, battlefields and sunken bridges of the war. Another of top acclaim is the score from Thomas Newman. Newman has composed scores for six of Mendes’ seven films and this is his fourth Oscar nomination for a score for a Mendes film. The score fits the intensity of the story and moments of action. Finally the visual effects team did an excellent job of recreating the war and the battle scenes.
1917 isn’t your typical war movie. It’s a movie that takes you on the journey and involves you in the drama. It even reminds you of the horror while restoring your belief in humanity.
And there you have it! That’s the last of my reviews of the Best Picture nominees! This makes it nineteen straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar Night! Just a review of the Oscar Shorts and my Oscar-winner predictions yet to come.