Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 8

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Heart.

Right, you know all that crap I was spewing in the preamble yesterday about how I was pacing myself and attempting to combat festival fatigue and had yet to have a bunch of film-ruining micro-naps this year?  Yeah, Imma need you to forget I said any of that stuff because that means you can take any hubris out of what I am about to say next.  Scheduling can absolutely hurt a film at a festival and let nobody attempt to tell you otherwise.  Seeing a whole bunch of heavy, weighty, another-phrase-for-“emotionally draining” films one after the other inevitably ends up dulling the effects somewhat after a fashion.  Even if you try to vary your film types for some levity or a less-strenuous bit of popcorn fun, you’ll quickly realise that a film festival’s idea of “Laugh,” say, often stretches the definition of the term.  And no matter how early you to try to head to bed or how relatively easy you try to take it on the write-ups, getting up at roughly 6am for upwards of a week straight is going to catch up to you and it will bite you in the arse at the worst possible moment.

All of this preamble is to contextualise the following statement: upon a rewatch outside of festival conditions, I shall probably deem Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Grade: B) a masterpiece because it very much appears to be.  Cèline Sciamma’s first directorial feature post-Girlhood is a period piece in which portrait artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint the portrait of the headstrong Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in secret under the guise of being her new walking companion because the portrait will be used to sell Héloïse off into an arranged marriage she does not want.  Thus, a dance between the two is set off, in which Marianne bonds with Héloïse (and vice versa), exchanging stolen glances both in an effort to mentally accumulate the detail required to accurately capture her assignment’s essence within the patriarchal constraints of a late-1700s Craiglist ad but also perhaps because of a deeper desire the pair know they can’t realise.  The parallels between a perceptive artist who can truly capture and express their subject in their work and a partner who can truly see inside their other’s wants and needs are evident and abundant.

Portrait is a film which works much like the masterpiece of an artwork whose in-baked memory sparks off our narrative; every individual element is precisely placed and technically great but the majesty of the thing comes from how they all intersect together in a manner where removing even one bit would cause the whole thing to come apart.  Sciamma’s camerawork is studied and, working with cinematographer Claire Mathon, gorgeously composed with phenomenal looking night scenes bathed in radiant candlelight, a brilliantly communicated sense of growing closeness between Marianne, Héloïse and the house’s live-in maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and subtly drawing the viewer’s attention to tiny details before drawing a line under them.  Her screenplay is tight structurally, playful with its characters, and rich thematically, slowly revealing itself to fundamentally be a queer rewriting of the Greek myth of Orpheus & Eurydice.  Merlant and Haenel, meanwhile, are absolutely sublime in the lead roles; the former often resembling Kristen Stewart in her simultaneously bashful yet commanding energy, the latter scarily accurately channelling early Kate Winslet in Héloïse’s guarded-to-playful evolution, whilst the pair together radiate chemistry from the first frame they share.

On every conceivable level, Portrait is the most exemplary film I have seen all Festival so far… I just didn’t feel all that connected to it and it’s almost certainly down to my screening being at 8:50am on the eighth day of almost nothing but 6am starts.  Portrait is a sensual slow-burn of a movie and have you tried watching a sensual slow-burn of a movie on barely six hours of sleep in the middle of an intensive workload?  I must shamefully confess to having my brain wander constantly, even coming close to full-on nodding off at times, and I am fairly confident on blaming my environment for this turn of events more than the film itself.  That’s because the ending of this movie is an utter knockout of a thing, exactly the kind of tragically romantic sucker-punch that normally sees me elevate a film from something I loved to something I adored, and even with my only having been partly with the film until then it still managed to send emotional shivers down my spine.  Were I not in the midst of the festival grind, that ending may very well have levelled me.  As is, it operated at maybe a tenth of its power.

Again, I highly doubt any of this is the fault of Portrait itself, an exemplarily-made film being seen by myself in the worst possible conditions.  When I get the chance to give it a second shot upon its release, most likely next year, that grade has a 75% chance of jumping up an entire rung and retroactively being my first “A” of my coverage this year.  But I’ve hedged my bets in case this is the kind of technically virtuoso film which just otherwise leaves me cold, which could also happen upon a rewatch and is the sort of thing that has happened a fair few times before.  In any case, I need digestion time and a fairer playing field to evaluate this one.  You can all start placing bets on whether I do end up calling it a masterpiece and kicking myself for not immediately doing so after a rewatch now.


Speaking of 6am starts, tomorrow (or I guess “today” when this gets posted) I actually have a 5:50am start thanks to an utterly bizarre scheduling cock-up on behalf of the Festival that’s going to cause a bloodbath amongst those who want to see both Michael Winterbottom’s Greed and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, the latter of which screened for the public today but doesn’t screen for the press until tomorrow (like yours truly).  So, a bunch of today’s write-ups are going on the backburner in the hopeful aid of sleep and you’ll instead have to hear about them later on.  But, I did promise you a write-up on Ga-young Yeong’s Heart (Grade: C+), a film which I almost shirked since the press screening overlapped with a non-sold-out public screening of Cory Finley’s Bad Education which I was able to get into (words on that coming tomorrow) but squeezed in a public screening at the last minute, so let’s touch on that right quick.  It’s a weird one.

Yeong plays Ga-young, a casual asshole of a filmmaker with a propensity for flings with married men who turns up on the doorstep of art teacher Seong-bum, with whom she had been having an affair six months earlier as his son was being born, to bitch directionlessly by her own admission about the married man with a three-month old son she’s currently in an affair with.  Seong-bum, for reasons that are unclear even to himself, happily indulges her conversations and even restarts his affair with her over beers and rambling philosophical debates that he half-assedly challenges her on every now and again.  There’s a very laidback, staccato, almost Seinfeldian flair to the movie, proudly uncinematic for almost its entire runtime and lacking any clear action points or major character developments even when it takes bizarre detours into Korean horror, complete with stock jump scare stings for some reason.  Yet I found myself weirdly entranced regardless of the seeming pointlessness of it all, Ga-young being a fun prickly presence and the looping conversations earning some genuine chuckles from their alcohol and resentment-infused combination of dead air and bluntness.

Despite that, the movie runs out of steam pretty fast even at barely 70 minutes.  The aforementioned horror detour doesn’t add anything to proceedings, the timeline which hops backwards and forwards at random intervals isn’t well conveyed, and the last 20 minutes take a turn for the self-congratulatorily meta that’s exhausting and disappointingly old-hat – not being as much of a critique of art-as-therapy as I think Yeong believes it is.  Part of me wonders if Heart would have been better served as a stage play.  You wouldn’t have had to change much of the screenplay to do so and Yeong’s filmmaking is deliberately not bringing anything extra to the table – for much of the first 10 minutes, I was growing convinced that the film would just be one uninterrupted conversation shot from the same intercutting straight-ahead vantage points.


Tomorrow: Greed (almost definitely), Knives Out (hopefully), and Bad Education (already done).

Callum Petch, come over to my place and live it up.

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