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TIFF 2019: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Paints a Masterpiece

Céline Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ paints a picture of two women struggling to find a place for themselves in a world they don’t fit in. It’s a gorgeously shot and movingly acted masterpiece.

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I approach every film that delights me at film festivals with a sense of trepidation. While absorbing an overwhelming array of excellent films (and working on a sleep deficit), it’s easy to be seduced by movies that are merely pretty good. Plenty of films that are glowingly praised at festivals won’t have much impact once they’re actually released, and though there are plenty of explanations for that, an overactive hype machine is a prime candidate. Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her passionate and invigorating fourth feature.

Set some time in the late 18th Century, the Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, a painter best known as the daughter of a respected painter. She has been called to Brittany on the western edge of France to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, and has already scared away one male painter. In order to get past her defenses, Marianne pretends to be a visiting companion — someone who would spend time with Héloïse to keep her occupied in the otherwise barren landscape.

Marianne steals furtive glances when the other isn’t looking, and makes small sketches of her hands, the arch of her neck, and her ears, combining them into a portrait at night by candlelight. But as she gets to know her subject better, she begins to have doubts about the morality of her covert art, and comes to better understand Héloïse’s situation. Both women are confined by their gender and status in society; Marianne is of a lower class and has her father’s successful work to buffer her from a need to marry, but she is limited in the subjects she’s allowed to paint because she’s a woman. Héloïse leads a life of relative luxury, but is isolated from the culture and art she desires, and now she’ll have to enter into a union she has no interest in. Eventually, this mutual understanding develops into something more between the two.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Sciamma manages to develop her characters in Portrait with a minimum of dialogue, instead focusing on light and color and composition to convey meaning. When the two women first meet by the sea, they’re filmed in profile, and we see Marianne take quick sideways glances to her right to glimpse Héloïse’s face in order to paint it later. But each time she turns her head it reveals her own face as well. One time Héloïse is staring directly at the waves, but another time she’s gazing at Marianne as if she’s swallowing her image as intently as the secret painter.

Even when these two do try to voice their inner torments, it’s in more subtle, quiet ways. When Héloïse runs from the mansion to the edge of a cliff, Marianne fears she intends to kill herself, but she stops at the last moment. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” she says, and when Marianne asks if she means dying, she corrects her: “Running.” She’s been cooped up alone in this house for years, and only desires the freedom to make her own choices, even if it’s as simple as freedom of movement. A lesser filmmaker might have entertained death as a form of “freedom” or “release,” but Sciamma wisely avoids that tired trope.

Working in glorious counterpoint with Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon’s exquisite visuals are Merlant and Haenel. Both are experts at playing characters who can never quite say what they truly mean or feel for each other. Instead, they communicate to each other and us through subtle gestures: the biting of a lip, the wrinkling at the corners of the eye. Their love story doesn’t exist completely in these sideways glances, but the expectation of a connection is almost as potent as the real thing. (Haenel and Sciamma began a relationship shortly after both made their first film together, 2007’s Water Lilies, so it’s not surprising that she has such a keen grasp of the actor’s every expression.) Seemingly at every juncture, Sciamma takes Portrait in unexpected directions. Even when nothing at all is happening on screen, it’s incredibly thrilling. Some might dub Portrait of a Lady on Fire as slow cinema, but only if they’re not paying attention.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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TIFF

‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Is a Twisting Homage to Classic Detective Films

TIFF 2019

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Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton writes, directs, and stars in this meditative and absorbing adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s neo-noir novel.

In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and went from being an under-read but respected postmodernist with a science-fiction bent to a writer with a growing mainstream audience. The book was an odd choice to suddenly get people’s attention — a tribute to the classic detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but featuring a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and taking place in the 1990s. But Lethem’s flair for language, along with the novel’s equal portions of humor and sincere longing, made it a striking success. Back in the early 2000s, Edward Norton began developing the film, shortly after making his directorial debut. It took almost 19 years, but miraculously, Norton has made a version of Motherless Brooklyn that’s fun, engaging, and a tribute to classic detective films of the past.

Norton takes the lead as Lionel Essrog, a member of a shady detective agency that mainly takes on cases for organized crime rather than regular citizens. He has worked there for years after being rescued from a brutal Catholic school for orphans by Frank Minna (an asleep-at-the-wheel Bruce Willis), the head of the detective agency and a major contact to underworld figures. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s, as well as a smidgen of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His speech is interrupted at varying times with shards of curse words, nonsense phrases, and plays on words (he says the condition is like having “glass in my brain”). The Maryland-raised Norton isn’t an obvious choice for someone who grew up in the outer boroughs, but he brings dueling amounts of chagrin and decency. These qualities are necessary following his ticks and outbursts, which would seem obnoxious from nearly anyone else.

Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn opens on Lionel surveilling his own boss. Frank is meeting with an unnamed group of men, and he’s having Lionel keep tabs on the meeting so that he can burst in should anything go wrong. Of course, something does go wrong, and Frank is left with a bullet in his belly and no answers to give. In the wake of the shooting, Lionel makes it his personal quest to find out who shot his boss. The twisting plot, which grows exponentially more labyrinthine over time, pulls the burgeoning detective into a tangled web involving New York City’s development. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry figure modeled after Robert Moses, seems to have some connection to Frank, as does Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young assistant to a Jane Jacobs-like figure who opposes everything Randolph stands for.

The convoluted plot will surely turn off some viewers, as did the more gonzo plot of last year’s Under the Silver Lake, but it’s a key component of all noir-inflected mysteries. The core books in the genre were written around WWII through the Cold War, and they illustrated a world gone mad — where the protagonist could never trust the word of another, and there was always more crucial information being hidden than he could ever real. The sense of disorientation that accompanies prime noir novels and films is a feature, not a bug.

Norton loses some of the wonderful strangeness of the novels ‘90s settings by setting it in the ‘50s, but it fits the story well, and some of the New York development details make more sense in mid-century. There are perhaps some tangents that could have been pruned involving various jazz clubs, and Bruce Willis’ phoned-in turn as Lionel’s mentor is an utter shame, robbing the film of some much-needed emotional moments, but Norton’s own performance makes up for many of the shortcomings, and he strikes up a charming rapport with Raw. Motherless Brooklyn can’t come close to topping its source material, but it’s still a lively mystery that might make you wish they still made this kind of detective story.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Is a Return to Form for Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy is back and in fine form as the creator of a hit Blaxploitation film, though the film doesn’t always live up to his talents.

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Dolemite Is My Name

It’s hard to remember the last time that Eddie Murphy was good in a movie, so it’s with great pleasure that I can report that he’s back and actually trying in Dolemite Is My Name, a new film for Netflix about the creator of the wildly successful blaxploitation hit, Dolemite (1975). It’s a fairly conventional piece of work, and much of the humor surrounding Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite act doesn’t hold up any more, but there are still enough laughs and palpable passion from Murphy to make it a worthy story.

It’s the early 1970s when we first see Moore trying to pressure a DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing some singles. Moore thinks of himself as a renaissance man — someone who has worked every facet of the entertainment industry — and wants to do it all, like his idol, Sammy Davis Jr. But his music dreams never went anywhere, and the closest he ever came to success was working in a record store. At nights, he gets five minutes of stand-up time before introducing acts at a local club, though he often stretches his time limit.

After a run-in with a homeless man who tells braggadocious stories about the hardest man he ever met (the improbably named Dolemite), Moore adopts the same rhyming style and crafts a stand-up act in which he puffs himself up and trash talks others mercilessly, all while dressed like a dandy pimp. The character is an instant success at the club, and soon Moore is taking his new act on the Chitlin Circuit, where he’s joined by Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a singer with her own stage persona.

Raunchy comedy records that reach the Billboard 25 follow, though Moore is interested in something even bigger: the movies. He hires playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), who is interested in respectability and social issues, and has him write the story for a blaxploitation crime film starring his Dolemite character. Along the way, Moore enlists actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, having a lot of fun) as the film’s director and villain, while assembling a crew mostly made up of his friends — talented people who know nothing about making a movie.

Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite isn’t as well-known now as some of its more famous Blaxploitation peers, but the film was a major success among black audiences, who came out to see it in droves in major cities. Though Murphy is often in comedic mode throughout, the awe Moore displays from people finally wanting to see something he has made is touching. Murphy also gives a performance that manages to channel Moore’s speech patterns as Dolemite, without ever slipping into parody.

Meanwhile, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski excel at dramatizing the uncertainties and inevitable failures that come with the ultra–low–budget film production, but they’re oddly incurious when it comes to Moore’s personal life. We never understand where his desire to be a jack of all trades comes from, and his responses to a life full of failures are only briefly covered. The two excelled at writing complicated real-life characters in earlier successes like Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and Man on the Moon (1999), yet they don’t give Moore the same in-depth treatment. The director, Hustle & Flow’s Craig Brewer, doesn’t help matters either. He can’t make the visuals and period details of those earlier bio films, and never really displays any directorial flair, while some of the supporting performances are perfunctory at best.

But it’s Eddie Murphy that people will want to see, and he’s at least in fine form. Perhaps this film, as well as his upcoming Coming 2 America (also directed by Brewer), will help to usher in a new era of Eddie Murphy movies that aren’t terrible. One can hope.

This article was originally published on September 13, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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