Thursday, February 27, 2020

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Short Takes on What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (& a tribute to the Englander Pub)

“Too Late to Turn Back Now”
(Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose from the 1972 song and album of that name)

Review by Ken Burke

I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.

                                      Portrait of a Lady on Fire 
                              (Céline Sciamma, 2019)   rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In the mid-18th century, a noted French painter, Marianne (left in the photo above), receives a commission to travel to an island off the Atlantic coast of the province of Brittany to make a portrait of a young aristocratic woman, Héloïse (right in the photo, if you haven't guessed already), as final verification she’ll be the bride of a nobleman in Milan, Italy; however, she was content at a convent before being taken away by her mother to fulfill this intended marriage for her now-dead-sister (suicide?), so Héloïse has no interest in posing for the portrait nor marrying a man she’s never even met.  To further complicate things for Marianne her task is to watch Héloïse as they take daily walks by the seashore, then complete the painting in secret from her observations.  They develop a quick, easy rapport in their conversations, leading Marianne to admit the full situation to Héloïse when the painting’s finished, but an argument between them leads Marianne to smear away the face on her canvas, then be surprised when Héloïse agrees to sit for a second version.  Without getting into further detail in this spoiler-free summary, I’ll just note what’s obvious from the trailer: these 2 women, despite their quick acquaintance, have more than just friendship between them, but how that’s worked out in this story is better left to an actual screening of the film (or a dive into my details below if that proves difficult given its very limited presence in North American cinemas at this point).  It’s won some awards already, been nominated for many more, is a beautiful experience to see on a big screen if you get the chance, yet find any opportunity you can to watch as it’s a lovely example of how cinema can capture, explore, probe our human feelings, here with extra-added-visual-interactions from painting.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: In an unspecified year of the mid-18th century in France a young woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is an art teacher/model for a small group of even-younger-women, one of whom earns her irritation by moving one of Marianne’s paintings out of a storeroom into their studio.  It’s a striking image of a woman outdoors at night with the hem of her full-length-dress aflame; when asked what it’s called Marianne replies “Portrait of a Woman on Fire.”  As the camera dollies in on the painting we shift to a lengthy flashback that occupies most of the film, events in 1760 (a date I got from various sources, although not directly from the story as I tried to follow it, scribbling notes in the dark attempting to keep up with—spectator warning!—subtitles of this French film) beginning with Marianne being rowed through choppy waters to an island off the Atlantic Ocean coast of Brittany in western France.  At one point a box (we later learn containing her canvases) is pitched overboard by the waves, yet none of the rowboat-men make any attempt to retrieve it so she has to jump in the water herself to get it back.  Later, when she’s dripping wet on shore she’s told her destination is up and beyond the cliffs so she trudges up there by herself, hauling all her belongings, until she comes to the manor of her new employer.  At first she meets only the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who shows Marianne to her large, almost-empty quarters where she sits nude by the fireplace for awhile, smoking her pipe, drying off; later, she comes downstairs to the kitchen, finds some bread and cheese, soon augmented by wine from Sophie.  Next day she meets her employer, The Countess (Valeria Golno), as they sit under a portrait of the older woman done by her father (Marianne’s father’s also a painter—apparently a successful one—as she has financial independence by managing his affairs, relieving her of the quest of most royal/aristocratic women of her time: finding a proper husband for lifelong-security) where Marianne learns almost more than she can handle at once: her task is to paint a portrait of The Countess’ daughter, Héloïse, who’s to be married to a nobleman in Milan (that’s all we ever learn about him, implying that’s all the bride-to-be needs to know) if he likes the portrait (apparently he was to be married to Héloïse’s sister, now dead [later, according to Sophie, we learn she jumped off a cliff with no sound of fright if it were an accident] so the unwilling sister was pulled from her contented life at a convent, brought out to this isolated island to prepare for a future she has no interest in) with the complication being Héloïse refuses to sit for the portrait so when a male painter attempted the task he finally, in frustration, left the head as a smear of paint.  Of course, the picture must be done in just a few days so Marianne’s only tactic is to take long walks with Héloïse by the seashore, studying her face, so the painting can be done in secret (with the uncooperative daughter under the mistaken understanding Marianne’s been hired as a temporary companion in this desolate location).

 The young women walk and talk, Marianne lingering on her new acquaintance’s features to the point of annoyance, then dashing off sketches when she gets a chance, followed up with painting by candlelight because Héloïse occupies most of their daytime hours, including a time when she admits she’s never been to a musical performance so Marianne plays “Summer” (from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) for her on a harpsichord.  Marianne also reveals she once attempted convent life but unlike Héloïse she didn’t care for it, left soon thereafter, later lived in Milan for awhile so these arbitrary-“friends” have more in common than they first understood, although Héloïse is bitter she has little control of her life, unlike Marianne.  As the surreptitious portrait progresses (in reasonable fashion with the artist “clothing” her subject in a long green dress, sometimes just laying it where Héloïse would be wearing it, sometimes using Sophie as a substitute model) Marianne also destroys the previous incomplete version, burning it in the fireplace.  When the new painting’s done (to The Countess’ satisfaction) Marianne insists she should be the one to break the truth to Héloïse; when the latter sees it, sharp words ensue between these 2 women, but mainly because Héloïse doesn’t feel it shows any real connection to the artist, causing Marianne to smear the face off this version as well in anger (oil doesn’t dry that fast, unlike contemporary acrylic, so it's still wet); surprisingly, though, Héloïse agrees to sit for another attempt while Mom goes away for 5 days.  As the work progresses the women are together day and night, growing closer.  One evening, they, with Sophie, read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice about the lovesick husband who goes to the underworld, pleading to allow his far-too-soon-dead-wife another chance at life, but for this miracle to happen she must follow him up the steep path to our world without him turning around to look at her, although he does just as they’re on the cusp of triumph so she’s forever banished to the afterlife.  The women discuss why Orpheus turned around with Héloïse wondering if Eurydice called out to him, Marianne arguing it was a poet’s choice, a romantic rather than a rational action.  Then, Sophie confesses she’s missed a few periods, Marianne’s easily aware she’s pregnant, tries to help through some tactics to induce a miscarriage (another of Marianne’s past experiences, leading Héloïse to inquire about what love’s like, a difficult thing for Marianne to articulate).  Following these attempts to aid Sophie the 3 go down to the beach at night where a group of women are singing (the elder one tells Sophie she’s still pregnant so the next morning they all go to that woman’s hut where she applies a potion that brings about the desired result, with Marianne later painting a sketch of the event as Héloïse plays the role of the [anti-]“midwife” applying the concoction to Sophie’s private parts); this is where Héloïse’s dress catches fire before being quickly extinguished.

 By now the growing connection between Marianne and Héloïse has become too intense to repress any further, so first they kiss in a cave on the beach in the morning, then their nights are actively sexual (although Marianne’s disturbed by occasional visions of Héloïse in a wedding dress, lingering for a moment then vanishing).  Eventually, the second portrait’s finished, this time with mutual approval, but a lovers’ quarrel crops up with Héloïse accusing Marianne of ruining the first painting out of artist’s ego rather than saving Héloïse from marriage (due to no portrait for the intended-husband to approve), then Marianne refusing to encourage Héloïse to reject the marriage so they might somehow build a life together.  Soon, they reconcile but with the knowledge The Countess will return the next day, setting Héloïse’s life in Milan in motion.  Marianne makes a sketch for herself to remember Héloïse but she wants one of Marianne for the same reason; with the arbitrary choice of p. 28 of Héloïse’s book (which has some open space), Marianne uses a mirror (symbolically placed by Héloïse’s crotch so that Marianne’s face resides there) to guide a drawing of herself into the book.  Mom returns as scheduled, approves the portrait which is boxed up to be sent to Milan, presents Héloïse with that wedding dress Marianne’s already seen her in, so Marianne rushes to leave but hears Héloïse call for her to turn around (like Orpheus) to look one last time.  Then we’re back to the present time period when the story began, with voiceover testimony from Marianne she saw Héloïse twice more, once in a painting in a gallery with a little girl (presumably her daughter; Marianne also has a work in that show, of Orpheus turned to see Eurydice fading away from him), Héloïse’s hand in a book so we can see she’s indicating p. 28, then in a final scene as Marianne (seemingly in Milan) at a symphony performance sees Héloïse across the theatre sitting alone in another balcony listing to Vivaldi’s “Summer,” with a range of emotions shown on her face in an extraordinarily-long-take (in closeup) where we just have to surmise what Héloïse’s is thinking about, alternately smiling and tearful, as she’s watched unobserved except by Marianne and us.⇐

So What? Portraitö of a Lady on Fire had a shot at being submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to compete for a Best International Feature Film Oscar, but the French Ministry of Culture instead chose Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, 2019)—somewhat inspired by but not directly based on the famous work of the same name by Victor Hugo (novel published in 1862, notably adapted to stage and screen, in recent times for the former in 1980 by Alain Boubili and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the latter in 2012 by Tom Hooper)—as their submission which did go on to be 1 of the 5 Oscar finalists (after winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival), although none of the others likely had any chance against Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019; review in our October 31, 2019 posting; the new Les Misérables did play in my area for awhile, but I never got around to seeing it)Portrait … was a winner at Cannes too, for the Queer Palm and overall Best Screenplay, got some notable recognition (along with a long list of some wins, mostly nominations from many critics’ groups) as a nominee for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes but lost again—as it did in many of those contests*—to Parasite, which was hard to beat in any awards race for 2019 releases, as a lot of surprised-Oscar-predictors (including me) found out the hard way.  Still, Portrait … is a powerful, well-conceived, intriguing, even mesmerizing cinematic experience which might be impactful enough to knock Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Creton, 2019; review in our January 16, 2020 posting) off of my Top 10 of 2019 list if I’d been able to see it when that being ranking was being compiled, but I’ll just leave history where it stands even while noting my respect, admiration, fascination with Portrait … while wishing it had been in a lot wider general circulation much sooner.

*These 2 links compare various accolades for Portrait ... to Parasite (scroll down within each one).

 The CCAL’s been extremely supportive as well with Rotten Tomatoes analysts providing a stunning 98% trove of positive reviews while the generally-reserved-folks at Metacritic offer the astounding generosity of a 95% average score (light-years better than anything both they and I have reviewed in 2020, tying only with Parasite and The Two Popes [Fernando Meirelles, 2019; review in our January 2, 2020 posting] at that number for anything I’m aware of from them in the 2019 releases).  I especially liked the Orpheus and Eurydice inclusion/references, well-considered as Marianne, the artist, likely sees herself as parallel to this mythologically-talented-musician/poet, willingly turning around for one last look at Héloïse (who calls out to Marianne for one last visual-embrace, just as she proposed Eurydice might have done to Orpheus, unable to contain her need for his presence any longer) who won’t actually disappear in her wedding gown as she did when appearing as an apparition but does withdraw from Marianne’s life (except for those 2 final-yet-distant-encounters) just as firmly as Eurydice leaves Orpheus’ Earthly-life (until time would come for him to join her in the underworld, a reunion Marianne could never hope to parallel—unless she knows more of what awaits in our afterlife than I might ever have reason to assume), all of this visually-recounted in the painting Marianne creates of this tragic tale of lost-love (even though she attributes it to her father, in one last tribute to him as he’s now left her life also)Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in its various ways a bit disturbing (Marianne turning into a voyeur stealing glances at Héloïse, trying to commit her features to memory), heartbreaking (Héloïse wants none of what’s been arbitrarily determined for her, is much more committed—as best she can be directly for a few days, then presumably in secret for the rest of her life—to her love for Marianne), elegant (cinematography, costumes, the physical appeal of the lead female actors), awful in some of its realities (the misery Sophie endures because of her unwanted pregnancy—like Héloïse’s husband-to-be we see few men in this film, as their necessity for the ongoing development of the story is minimal except to provide dramatic points of tension, as with Héloïse’s arranged-marriage for purposes of social and economic stability with no regard for her wants and needs), mesmerizing in its full presentation (I know nothing of this director nor her stars yet I’d be eager to see more of any of their work). There’s much to admire here—including the marvelous portraits done by Marianne (actually Hélène Delmaire, whose command of Héloïse/Haenel’s facial features is most-admirable, says the guy with a BFA, some success as a painter, but nowhere near her ability to capture facial features in such an effective manner), so I encourage your attendance at this film difficult as that may prove to be without some video option.*

*One possibility is this 17:07 compression (spoilers abound of course), although the outdoor lighting’s harsh compared to the original, some indoor shots are a bit dark, overly-contrasty as well.

Bottom Line Final Comments: The difficulty in finding Portrait of a Lady on Fire results from it currently being in only 130 domestic (U.S.-Canada) venues (up from a tiny 22 even though it’s been out for 12 weeks) so it’s only brought in about $1.4 million so far (although its global total’s considerably better at $7 million) with little incentive from such meager results to expand (especially when competing with “animal”-focused-experiences such as Sonic the Hedgehog [Jeff Fowler; $107.7 million domestically, $204.2 million globally], The Call of the Wild [Chris Sanders; $26.5 million domestically, $42.6 million globally] or even—new title to help clarify content—Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey [Cathy Yan; $72.9 million domestically, $174 million globally]) much wider unless it has a successful run this coming weekend at France’s César awards (their Oscars) where it has 10 nominations (including Best Film, Director, Actress [for both leads], Original Screenplay), but 5 of those are in direct competition with Les Misérables so they continue to compete with each other in Europe even as the latter’s all-but-vanished from our domestic screens.  Still, if you can find Portrait … now or later in a video format I highly encourage a viewing as it’s a worthy investment of your time, a tastefully-sensual-delight in its last half (unless lesbianism’s a problem for you—but why should it be?), as well as a useful lesson in portrait painting as we watch Marianne progress from blank canvas to captivating images (although the second one does have a stronger sense of revealing its subject, as it should, done from life rather than recently-remembered-sketches).  I’ll wrap up as usual with a Musical Metaphor to finalize these comments with a consideration of my opening reference of “Too Late to Turn Back Now” as it could easily refer to the emerging passion between Marianne and Héloïse, either being able to say: “It’s so unusual for me to carry on this way I tell you, I can’t sleep at night, a wanting to hold her tight I tried so hard to convince myself that this feelin’ just can’t be right And I’m telling you It’s too late to turn back now I believe, I believe, I believe I’m falling in love.”  (To clear up any confusion about their video the brothers are Carter and Eddie Cornelius, the women are their sisters Rose and Billie Jo, the latter joining the group in 1972 after original member Cleveland E. Barrett died in a car crash.)  Yet, the true emphasis here is on the impossibility (even among aristocrats) in that era of such a love being able to flourish so my actual Metaphor is from the Moody Blues (before they changed some personnel in their big-years of the late 1960s-much of the ‘70s) with “Go Now” (a 1964 hit on their 1965 The Magnificent Moodies album) at (1965 performance) with the emphasis on “We’ve already said ‘goodbye’ Since you gotta go, oh you’d better go now Before you see me cry I don’t want you to tell me just what you intend to do now ‘Cause how many times do I have to tell you darlin’, darlin’ I’m still in love with you now.”  It’s clear from the later scenes they never lost their passion for each other, allowing us to celebrate it with them when they could, feel remorse about their separation as their times (unlike Bob Dylan’s in 1964) weren’t yet ready to be a-changin'.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also may appear here [but not this time])

    What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (Rob Garver, 2018)   Not rated
Here’s the trailer:

 Always on the lookout for ways to enhance the coverage of this blog I’ll do something (I don’t recall) I’ve ever done before which is to call your attention—not truly a recommendation (therefore, no stars rating) but just barely short of that—to something I haven’t seen, a documentary about famed film critic Pauline Kael (it’s playing somewhat near me but, despite my interest, there’ve been other items on my agenda, and, as Paul McCartney sings in "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" [on the 1971 Ram album] “the kettle’s on to boil and we’re so easily called away”) which I’m going to encourage you to at least look into seeing it if you can because given the high quality of film commentary Kael put into The New Yorker as an official film critic from 1968 to 1991 (accumulated in 13 anthologies of her prodigious output—including her famous re-evaluation of Orson Welles’ contributions to the script of his most famous film in The Citizen Kane Book [1971]) I can’t imagine this would be anything less than a marvelous lesson in the process of extremely-well-informed-film-analysis from a courageous woman unafraid to take the cinematic world to task whenever she saw fit, although if you have interest in seeing this while it’s still in a theater (before also seeking it out somehow later in a video option) you should do so fast because it’s not playing very widely as best I can tell (didn’t even crack last weekend’s list from Box Office Mojo), will be leaving my San Francisco area in the next day or so before I get a chance to see it.  All I can say is I have nothing but the highest respect for her opinions as a film critic (even if I don’t always agree with everything she says), would imagine this exploration of her life and work will make clear why her reviews were so highly regarded, still continue to be so today despite her long-ago-death in 2001 (here’s a collection of 73 of them from The New Yorker and The New Republic).  However, contemporary critics are a bit divided on this doc, with the RT folks offering 85% positive reviews while the (snobbish, maybe?) MCers could muster only a 68% average score (you can also find a bit more info at the official website, as well as some quick comments from Kael [2:57] to give you a direct sense of her attitudes, in that the doc’s seems full of commentary from others speaking about her).

 Ending this posting on a non-cinematic-note, I’ll acknowledge the sad demise of a wonderful gathering place in nearby (to me) San Leandro, CA, known as The Englander Sports Pub and Restaurant where my wife, Nina, and I have spent many a leisurely afternoon partaking of their vast variety of brews (Sunday brunch was great there as well).  The photo to the right is me with Roy Childress, who’s worked there since the place opened in 1995, then became 1 of 3 co-owners (with his sister and her husband, Cheryl and Rod Thies) in 2014, the year Nina and I took it upon ourselves to join the many people with small plaques on the wall celebrating the feat of having indulged in all 75 beers on tap.  We worked our way down the row of kegs starting in October 2014, finished the quest in 2016 (although we had to keep active to stay on pace with them as they kept rotating new product into the mix frequently), finally earned our honored spots on the wall that year.  But now, though, the landlord's refused to renew their lease or sell the spot to someone who’d keep it going (seems this person wants to build high-rise-condos and shops at the location) so The Englander’s final day will be Feb. 29, 2020.  It was a great place to wander into on a regular basis, we met some talkative patrons and friendly bartenders there, and enjoyed many a chilled glass of barley and hops (although Guinness was my favorite dark ale going in, Kona Longboard my favorite lager, still ending up that way even after having at least 1 pint of 153 other contenders).  Great places like this keep closing in our area (yours too?).  Thanks for the memories.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2019’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 9, 2020 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2019 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2019 along with the Oscar nominees and winners for 2019 films.

Here’s more information about Portrait of a Lady on Fire: (19:28 interview with director Céline Sciamma and actors Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, [audio’s a bit low at times so you might want to use the Closed Captions option, which actually provides an accurate transcription this time])

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.


Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 11,781 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers, even though we’re experiencing our usual early-in-the-year-dropoff with hopes the traffic will soon increase again); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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