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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

‘Saint Maud’ Devotes Itself to a Masterful Slow Burn

‘Saint Maud’ provides a nuanced look at religious fanaticism with an explosive ending, anchored by a chilling lead performance.

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Saint Maud

The horror genre and religion pretty much go hand-in-hand; either the Devil orders a lost soul to do something monstrous, or a noble person is possessed, and audiences eat it up when the demon inside them is finally exorcised. In Saint Maud, the Devil is only a mere component in a film where religion and devotion to God is taken to extremes. As Rose Glass’s directorial debut slowly explores its main character’s relationship to God, it eventually burns to an intensity — one that will have horror fans smiling in utter delight.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) has recently-converted to Christianity after a barely-talked-about experience that pushed her to work in private care. She now looks after Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, who is deliciously evil), a former dancer turned bitter, and who needs very personalized care in her final days. Maud becomes obsessed with her, believing that God has driven her to take care of Amanda for a reason, and insists on trying to save the dying woman’s soul before she passes away. In order to redeem her from her past misdeeds, Maud will go to extraneous lengths to save Amanda, as well as prove her fealty to God.

Saint Maud

Saint Maud works as well as it does because it takes its time with Maud as a character. Things are obviously not as cut-and-dried as Maud simply desiring a place in Heaven by God’s side; she is working through something, which is made all the more obvious by Clark’s incredibly subdued, but emotional, performance. Maud’s past brought her to this point, but the film wisely chooses to focus more on her present struggle; if the past manifests in any way, it’s natural. Maud is always hiding something behind her neat, comforting facade, and it’s not something healthy. Yet, it’s enough to make her actions more and more believable as the film escalates into more familiar genre fare.

The escalation is what gives Saint Maud its very slow-burn nature, as the narrative doesn’t necessarily start moving until much later. In lieu of narrative progression is that aforementioned character development, as well as some genuinely sincere chemistry between Amanda and Maud. The way they become attached is what makes some of the latter components of the story work. For horror fans, however, the slow-burn will likely be enticing due to so many beautifully creepy shots, and one key component of Maud’s character — she can hear and feel God talk to her — which brings out a tension that builds in every scene in which she has those communications.

A psychological horror-thriller, Saint Maud is more frightening than it initially lets on. The decision to pace itself slowly and deliberately pays off in dividends by the end, as the characters are fully fleshed out to service the climax — one where the final shot will stick with audiences for a very long time after. Chilling in its depiction of religious fanaticism and the lengths one will go to for redemption, Saint Maud is one of the most assured horror debuts in recent memory.

Editor’ s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘The Vast of Night’ Is a Thrilling Homage to ‘50s Sci-Fi

‘The Vast of Night’ draws from late-’50s science fiction and radio plays by leaving its thrills unseen and letting the audience create them instead.

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The Vast of Night

What is out there in the vast of night?

When I was in middle school, I went through a period where I was obsessed with radio plays from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. You could find the scratchy old broadcasts preserved on cassettes here and there, and boutique publishers online had large sets on CDs. What fascinated me was the enveloping nature of the stories; they were sometimes clumsily written or acted, and usually featured overly obvious narration, but the best shows left just enough out that one’s brain could create scenes of suspense and terror more potent than had they been depicted visually. Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is an homage to science fiction and horror classics of that era, and like them it benefits from withholding information, allowing the audience to create their own thrills.

Set in late ‘50s New Mexico, The Vast of Night occurs all on a single night when most of a small town is clustered in the local high school gym for a basketball game. However, the school and town have suffered from odd power outages and unexplained flickering lights; enter the fast-talking radio host Everett Sloane (Jake Horowitz). It’s probably not a coincidence that the occasionally obnoxious character is named after the fast-talking and occasionally obnoxious actor who made such an impression as part of Orson Welles’ stock company in Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai. Everett takes break from his radio show to help with the recording of the basketball game, which he’ll replay at the station the following day. He’s joined by Fay Crocker (a charming Sierra McCormick), a high school student who wants his help operating a brand new tape recorder she’s just purchased.

The Vast of Night

But once the two separate — Jake going back to the station and Fay to her nightly job as a switchboard operator — an eerie aura envelops the town. Fay catches an odd mechanical clicking over her phone lines, and her friends and neighbors can’t be reached at home. When she patches the strange sound for Everett to play at the radio station, a listener calls in with a tale of having heard that sound before during secret government testing from years earlier that he’s not supposed to be telling anyone about. He thinks the sounds might be coming from somewhere high up, and the few people not at the basketball game start to notice strange objects flying in the sky.

Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger wisely avoid showing too much in The Vast of Night. Everett and Fay barely understand what’s happening around them, and the film keeps the audience almost as much in the dark. It’s constantly withholding, but in the best possible way, making us lean forward in hopes of learning more. In the bravura call-in scene, Bruce Davis gives a compelling performance that’s done completely over the phone, and Patterson periodically cuts to a black screen throughout, giving the audience a chance to create our own visuals to accompany his story, as one would have with an old radio play. At other times, Patterson lets his camera zoom around the small town to thrilling effect.

The Vast of Night features interludes shown on an old black-and-white television, with a pitch-perfect Rod Serling impression for a fake anthology series called Paradox Theater. The film doesn’t have much of The Twilight Zone’s social politics or irony, but the framing further underscores its connection to Cold War-era America. The best science fiction from that period captured a nation simultaneously enthralled and terrified by the future it might unlock, and The Vast of Night effectively replicates those conflicting emotions. Fay and Everett are terrified of what might be causing the disturbances in town, but there’s no way they’ll give up until they find out what it is.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 8, 2019 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

For more on The Vast of the Night, check out the latest episode of the Sordid Cinema Podcast embedded below.

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‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 16, 2019, as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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