Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire @ Cork Film Festival

Sean O’Rourke takes a look at Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

In a scene midway through Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) the two lead characters, Marianna, and Héloïse, one an artist, the other a lady awaiting her encroaching marriage, point out each other’s habitual gestures and their meanings – a bitten lip that signifies anger, a slightly raised eyebrow that signifies a loss of control. And for the rest of the film, those gestures become highlighted and significant. A raised eyebrow might suddenly seem crucial to our understanding of a scene. We might wonder if a bitten lip means the same thing now as it did when it was first identified, giving us insight into the evolution of these characters. It even begins to seem as though each one starts exhibiting some of the habitual gestures of the other.

We see their points of connection in these increasingly shared gestures and the already accomplished performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel become even more meaningful, more revealing. It’s just one example of the excellent plotting done by director Céline Sciamma, who continually begins threads like this that weave their way throughout the film such that each ensuing scene becomes further layered with meaning and emotional resonance. Her skill behind the camera, both as director and screenwriter, is astounding and, on this simple plot, a love story between two women, she paints an astounding portrait of dynamic human connection within societal structures and the possibilities of what those connections might look like when the most harmful of those structures are stripped away. 

The film examines this theme by following Marianna, an artist in the 19th century, who has been sent to an island where she is to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young aristocrat. This portrait is to be sent away to Héloïse’s future, unknown Milanese husband. The painting of it, therefore, signals a sort of death of liberty for Héloïse. For this reason, inconveniently enough for Marianna, Héloïse refuses to sit for her portrait. Therefore, Marianna begins to befriend Héloïse, all the while covertly and closely observing her, painting her in secret. However, once all remnants of patriarchal control (which hold Héloïse to her coming marriage, hold back Marianna’s career, and police the types of relationships women are able to have with one another) leave the Island temporarily, Marianna and Héloïse are able to connect more and more closely with one another. They form a loving, ever-evolving bond that has a built-in time limit as Marianna’s painting of Héloïse, and indeed Héloïse herself, must soon be shipped away from this temporary utopia to Milan.

Since the film so adeptly and continually builds and displays the complexities of this relationship as I have said, we get the chance to see and deeply feel the building intimacy between these characters. We see this building relationship in an environment that is usually intensely realistic, with close attention to, for example, the realistic details of the act of painting, of clothing oneself, of cooking and eating. Sciamma uses these realistic details to give us tangible insight into how these characters are growing to perceive each other through how they perform these actions – especially through the act of painting where Marianna must constantly adjust how she depicts Héloïse in accordance with her evolving perception of Héloïse. Therefore, it is startling when this realism is occasionally and suddenly intruded on by myth and the uncanny in moments of artistic inspiration, longing, and anxiety, represented in a non-realistic manner. These moments are made all the more notable for being entirely unexpected in the context of the aesthetic of the rest of the film. And yet, these strange, eerie moments feel perfectly at home in the story, bringing us further into these characters’ perspectives, perhaps implying a shifting perception of the world brought on by their shifting perceptions of each other and vice-versa.

Sciamma handles these altering tones so well and uses them to further her insights on gender, class, human connection, and queerness, fully immersing us in this dynamic relationship and its implications. This unique, beautiful, queer, love story seemed to profoundly affect the audience I saw it with at the Cork Film Festival. I can assure you that it has affected me like no other film this year and I sincerely recommend you seek it out as it becomes more widely available in the coming months.

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire screened on Saturday, 16th November 2019 as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

Share

Review: The Nightingale

 

DIR/WRI: Jennifer Kent • DOP: Radek Ladczuk • ED: Simon Njoo • DES: Alex Holmes • PRO: Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Bruna Papandrea • MUS: Jed Kurzel • CAST: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr

Watching Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is an oppressively confining experience. Nearly every scene seems to almost press in on the film’s protagonist, Clare, a transported Irish convict. Her life in a small Tasmanian settlement is oppressive, appropriate given the near unspeakable trauma she endures there. But even after she leaves for the ostensibly more open Tasmanian wilderness on a revenge mission, that feeling of confinement remains. Walls are replaced with brush that surrounds each scene, making these scenes feel small, cut-off, stifling. There, she meets a guide named Billy, a Tasmanian aboriginal. These two characters are framed by a 1.375:1 aspect ratio (a fancy way of saying that the frame is nearly as tall as it is wide), making it seem as though even the edges of the screen are  pressing inwards on them. And all the while, every random encounter with a colonizer out in the wilderness carries the threat of murder and rape. We are effectively boxed in with these characters, feeling their vulnerability to the British colonial project that surrounds them and constricts, ready to destroy not only their bodies but their identity and any conception they might have of home and belonging. Kent weaponsizes this feeling of confinement expertly, much as she did in her excellent The Babadook, giving us little comfort as we watch this revenge tale unfold. This alone would mark out Kent’s remarkable direction well enough and would give me good reason to recommend the film.

However, there’s more to this tale. There is comfort here. Though both Clare and Billy share English as a common tongue, they both also speak their respective native tongues. Both lead actors are excellent, especially in the moments where they make clear the intensely personal yet expansive cultural significance behind this native speech. In scenes where we witness this, we see a magical confluence between director and actor that suddenly makes these confined scenes feel liberatingingly expansive, not because the scenes become visually more open, but because we can hear and feel the vastness of the cultural identities carried on their voices, indicating something that colonialist violence hasn’t yet been able to completely stifle.

Here, the film displays its remarkable empathetic powers that, when present as they are for the vast majority of the film, make its insights into such heady topics as colonial, social stratification most compelling and its horrific violence most affecting. The scenes that lack this empathy are, therefore, its least effective. The film’s biggest weakness is one of its villains who becomes so evil, so inhuman, that my interest in his scenes waned. Indeed, the most interesting and affecting monstrosities of the film are the ones that are inexcusable, yet feel as though they are being inflicted by people tinged with a horrifying familiarity – who feel human and are thus all the more repulsive for it. In the rare moments when the film lacks this relatability, it loses some of its otherwise tight grip on the senses.

It must also be admitted that the film is quite long and doesn’t maintain the forward momentum it creates for itself in its first half. And yet, I feel that this is not actually a weakness. The film needs some downtime to convincingly expand its central conflict beyond that of a standard revenge thriller. It is as the complex, touching central relationship between Clare and Billy evolves alongside the film’s very plot structure that we might best see just how strong this script really is. As this happens, we get more and more moments of expansive meaning within this stifling, colonially circumscribed world and these moments of expansiveness are every bit as compelling as the nail-biting confinement we experience through most of the film. This dynamic helped me to feel no small amount of love for the two protagonists and what they represent. It made me realize that the film has done something truly special and is worthy of our rapt, horrified attention.

Sean O’Rourke

136′ 16″
18 (see IFCO for details)

The Nightingale is released 29th November 2019

The Nightingale – Official Website

Share

Irish Film Review: The Limit Of

 

DIR/WRI: Alan Mulligan • PRO: Taine King, Alan Mulligan, Anthony Mulligan, Tim Palmer • DOP: Daniel Sorin Balteanu • ED: Alan Mulligan, Tim Palmer, Daniel Sorin Balteanu • DES: Lilla Nurie • CAST: Laurence O’Fuarain, Joanne Brennan, Des Carney

 

In Alan Mulligan’s The Limit Of, we are introduced to our lead character James, a distant, meticulous figure, as he runs through Dublin at night, headphones in, ignoring all around him. Immediately, the film’s visuals work hard and effectively to situate James within the wider context of 21st century, modernizing Dublin as we see him run along the Samuel Beckett Bridge and by other recognizable modern landmarks and architecture. And soon, as we cut to the next day when James’ day job is revealed to us, we can see why. James is a banker and the film is, to a certain extent, a kind of state of the nation (or at least state of the city) piece.

James witnesses first-hand the cruelty of his employers to a stranger and then to a loved one. He sits through meetings whose participants could have been side characters in Glengarry Glen Ross, except that their seediness and vile intentions would have overshadowed that film’s main cast.

Indeed, characterization in this film can be somewhat lacking. The bankers in this film, with two exceptions, are just evil. Aside from James himself, characters are generally one-note and their motivations simplistic. In the case of the bankers though, their uncomplicated evil does make it clear the stance this film is taking on the state of 21st century Ireland: banks exert an inordinate amount of control on the lives of Irish people, especially on the sick, elderly, and otherwise vulnerable, and the manner in which control is exerted is entirely avaricious. It is not a nuanced take on the state of modern Ireland, but an admirably bitter diatribe against the impersonal state of modern financial institutions, though it is perhaps a bit undercut by the cartoony, villainous dialogue of characters who run those institutions.

Dialogue and the relationships among the film’s small cast of characters in general are often an issue in this film, which does not aid in the believability of these characters or their plight.  In particular, a sexual subplot involving James which features awkward dialogue with a co-worker and lingering shots of him staring at her groin feels stilted at best and a bit exploitative at worst. That’s not to say that these actors don’t give strong performances. Special praise must go to Sonya O’Donoghue who gives a wonderful performance in the brief time she is in the film. The issue is just that the relationships between characters are not compelling or heartfelt enough to carry the film.

To uncover the real strength of the film we must turn back to its visuals. There’s a coldness to them. We do not often see the Georgian centre of Dublin, but instead see rectangular architecture and cold fluorescent lights. Inside James’ work place, there’s a bleak impersonality to everything around him. Characters are framed against quasi-symmetrical backdrops, often with vertical lines and barriers like thin doorways or bland posters hanging between them, implying a forced distance between people as demanded by institutions that value impersonal control. Interestingly though, these barriers are almost never centred just right. Mulligan seems to subtly emphasize the “quasi” in “quasi-symmetrical” when it comes to his compositions. In these slightly off-kilter visuals, the movie at first appears to be displaying a clear narrative about control, and then appears, upon closer inspection, to subtly resist it. Even as we see overhead shots outside the office building, where we follow the Liffey past rows of impersonal, rectangular buildings, the staid sameness of these buildings actually serves to emphasize the subtle curvature of the river, which resists that sameness. It’s almost as if there is something inherently chaotic here that upsets this narrative of impersonality and control.

These visuals work well to elucidate the film’s themes. As the events of the film progress and James begins to viscerally encounter and resist the injustice of his employer, such visuals remain the most powerful weapon in Mulligan’s arsenal to make his examination of the limits of cold calculation and, eventually, the seeming impossibility of clear narratives of control and justice strike home. I’ll be thrilled to see when Mulligan’s keen visual eye gets married to a script and characters that complement this skill.

Sean O’Rourke

92 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
The Limit of is released 5th April 2019

Share

Irish Film Review: The Silver Branch

 

DIR: Katrina Costello

 

Katrina Costello’s The Silver Branch is plainly gorgeous. As she examines farmer and poet Patrick McCormack’s life on his farm in the Burren, she shows her eye for framing natural beauty. She sits her viewers by the side of a dying cow, forcing us straight into empathy with it and its caretakers. She places us in torrential rain which obscures the surrounding landscape and highlights McCormack’s hay-collecting efforts in a baroque-like manner. The camera examines in slow motion predatory hawks as well as rural funeral marches and in fast-forward we see flowers bloom before our eyes. These visuals alone merit an attentive watch.

What elevates this film, however, is its extraordinary ability to pair its visuals with Patrick McCormack’s narration. As the film displays his daily work on the farm, his legal struggles to protect the Burren, his despair as many of his children leave for America, and the environment he calls home, Patrick unveils the wisdom he has gained from his deep connection with the land. We are placed in this world with Costello to guide us visually, McCormack to guide us verbally, and James Dornan to blend the two together through his beautiful score.

It is when Costello’s imagery imbues McCormack’s words with greater meaning and vice-versa that the film is able to find a truly unique means of expression. The film often imbues a single image with multiple, contradictory-yet-compatible meanings by virtue of the cinematography and McCormack’s reflections. A predatory hawk becomes associated with both a threatening, encroaching form of modernity and with a sense of comfort for the poet who fights this encroachment. A rainstorm can be a symbol of renewal as well as fragility for him. These universal themes, drawn out by McCormack’s rootedness with the land he tends, are the film’s great achievement.

Though some visuals work better than others (images of boxers in a ring layered over court proceedings are a bit on the nose), the movie is consistently able to blend together McCormack’s narration and poetry with a visual examination of The Burren in a way that places this particular human experience within what McCormack calls the “web of nature,” revealing our own fragile, yet important place in the natural world, a world that we are not separate from, but one that we are inextricably a part of. The film gets at these insights by digging into the reciprocal process between human and non-human elements of this web. The film’s poetry, visuals, and score combine to show us how sitting at the side of a dying cow can help us to discern some part of our uncertain place in this massive “web” and how that discernment informs how we interact with our landscape. In the mists that so frequently border sweeping shots of the farm, Costello and McCormack let us see our own ephemerality as well as the responsibility placed on us by our own temporary nature.

That this film illustrates this reciprocity so well does it credit and, due to this achievement, the Irish film community should anticipate whatever Costello produces next.

Sean O’Rourke

75 Minutes
The Silver Branch is released 5th October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Katrina Costello, Director of ‘The Silver Branch’

 

Share

Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: Condemned to Remember

 

Sean O’Rourke reviews Gerry Gregg’s Condemned to Remember, in which Irish Holocaust Survivor Tomi Reichental celebrates his 80th birthday in a Dublin Mosque and embarks on epic journey across a Europe in turmoil.

Condemned to Remember is a documentary by frequent collaborators Gerry Gregg and Tomi Reichental which discusses the rise of modern, neo-fascist movements throughout Europe. This unfortunately prescient topic is given a wrenchingly personal touch by the latter collaborator: Reichental, a holocaust survivor. Born in Czechoslovakia to a Jewish family, he and his loved ones were sold to the Germans by their government, just as had been done to many other Czechoslovakian Jews, and he was forced into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The movie opens with Reichental, on his 80th birthday in Dublin where he has been invited celebrate Ramadan in a local mosque.

He is immediately disarming, joking as he is readying for his visit that there are few Holocaust survivors celebrating their 80th birthday in a mosque. Even in parts of the film that touch on the darkest moments human history has to offer, Tomi remains a bright, hopeful presence.

However, while the visit to the mosque was playing out, the film took a detour to explore the ongoing legal proceedings against a former SS guard present on a forced death march Tomi described in an earlier film. The film simultaneously starts to set up its examination of current neo-fascist movements in Europe without initially making any important thematic links between this, the mosque visit, and the German legal suit. As I watched this unfold, it seemed to me that the film lacked focus and it felt a waste to cut back and forth between these various proceedings if no greater point about their connections were to be made. The film even started to seem too eager to get to its next big moment, such that the editing often felt too fast. Rather than lingering on moments of human connection between, for example, Tomi and the granddaughter of a Nazi, it instead cut the scene to only its essential soundbites, then moved on before the humanity of these two people, miraculously occupying the same space, could really come through. In these early moments, I thought the film might be squandering its best intentions in an attempt to cover too much ground too quickly.

What relief it was for me then, to find the movie really come together as Tomi went further in his European journey. The film’s stated goal is to prevent genocides like the Holocaust from reoccurring and it does so by reclaiming the past from any complacency that moniker, “past,” might possess. As the film delves deeper into contemporary European political figures, such as Slovakia’s Marian Kotleba, whose rhetoric would not have seemed out of place in 1940s Germany (nor indeed in a massive nationalist Polish demonstration earlier this month), Reichental’s recounting of his experiences in the Holocaust do not just seem a recounting of past events, but as vital experiences that must be used to fight against those who would have them repeated.

The film also gives itself more room to breathe as it goes on and, in these moments, the film has a real poetry to it. Moments of connection, of Tomi looking into the eyes of those who have survived more recent genocides, serve the film’s central goal well and, in moments where the camera lingers on Tomi’s face as he reflects on what’s before him, we are allowed to form an intimate human connection with him, a connection that is made all the more important by a theme the movie brings home again and again: that there will be a day in the near future when there will be no more Holocaust survivors, when this direct link to that historical moment is severed. In its moments of greatest humanity, of Tomi walking down a dirt road with a Syrian refugee, or standing at the spot where his childhood home used to stand, that the film’s poetic power is brought to bear on its audience. These moments preserve the humanity of a man like Tomi powerfully, and assert the importance of such preservation.

The film is at its best when it generates that sense of immediacy in its discussion of the past with the present. Despite a certain formal conventionality, the film remains a powerful reminder of the horrors that human beings commit again and again right up to the present day. Indeed, as Tomi visits the spot of his childhood home, long since gone, its foundations buried under bush and weed, as Tomi stands in the corner of the frame, describing life there as a child, building a mental image for us that might fill the rest of the frame if we listen well, saying over and over that it is gone, and yet still feels like home, one sees the words of William Faulkner (by way of Tomi) ring true: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Gregg and his team capture something truly special here: the horror and the beauty of Tomi’s past, a past that carries great relevance in a world that often bears, as Gregg shows through powerful juxtaposition between Tomi’s remembrances and footage of modern-day Europe, uncomfortable relevance to the world just prior to the horrors visited on Tomi. Aside from a start that lacks focus and an occasional reluctance to let powerful scenes breath, the film manages to make its importance known, to pull the past into an uncertain present, and display for us the humanity of a man whose experience deserves our attention and prompts our action.

 

Condemned to Remember screened on 12th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival

 

In Irish cinemas 3rd November 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Gerry Gregg, Director of ‘Condemned to Remember’

Share