Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Petite Maman

24/11/21

Cineworld Edinburgh

Céline Sciamma’s last film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was one of the most widely acclaimed releases of 2020, a sumptuous historical drama, which had plenty to say about the creative process and also offered a heartrending tale of forbidden love. My one regret at the time was that the restrictions of the COVID 19 pandemic meant that I could only view it on the small screen.

Petite Maman really couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. Shot during lockdown and using only a handful of actors, it relates its intimate story over just seventy-two minutes and yet, in its own muted way, it’s a magical experience, with a central premise that stays with me long after the credits have rolled.

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a little girl called Nelly (Josephine Sanz) accompanies her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the old woman’s house, somewhere in the French countryside, where they will spend time clearing out her belongings. Nelly’s parents don’t seem to be getting along too well and the rediscovery of her childhood belongings seems to make her mother melancholic. Left to her own devices, Nelly goes exploring the nearby woods, where she meets a girl her own age called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Marion is building a tree house and, almost without a word exchanged between them, Nelly starts to help her with the task.

It is apparent from the word go that something very strange is happening…

And it would be criminal to outline any more of the plot. Suffice to say that what transpires is an enchanting ‘what if’ story, and that Sciamma, who also wrote the script, offers us very little in the way of exposition and even less that might serve as explanation. She has the confidence to leave it up to the viewer to put the pieces together, which, because little clues have been expertly placed, is easy to do.

The two young actors are a joy to watch, their simple adventures delightful and, somehow, their performances hardly feel like ‘acting’ at all. Cinematographer Claire Mahon captures the events in a glowing, autumnal light that makes the incredible seem entirely possible. Watching this, I’m reminded of times in my own childhood, when a walk in the woods could take me to a place where my imagination would conjure the most wonderful adventures.

Petite Maman is simply enchanting and, given it’s brisk running time – a rare accomplishment in an era that sometimes seems incapable of creating any film shorter that two hours – it blows by like a wisp of gossamer: sweet, magical and beautifully understated.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Deerskin

26/07/21

Cameo

Shot in 2019 and the winner of several prestigious awards, Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin is a self-consciously weird film about a middle-aged man’s nervous breakdown and his attempts to reinvent himself as a ‘film maker.’

Bleakly surreal and sometimes just plain bonkers, it seems to be trying to make a point about the filmmaking process itself but, if that’s true, it’s one that virtually drips with a massive dose of self-loathing. To follow Dupieux’s logic, filmmaking is a sham, a perfect hiding place for the untalented. There are always financiers eager to horn in on somebody else’s efforts and the general public are happy to do just about anything so long as there’s a camera pointed at them. Which is all pretty dispiriting when you think about it.

Georges (Jean Dujardin) runs out on his marriage, puts his sports jacket down the nearest toilet and buys himself a fringed deerskin affair for what seems a ludicrous amount of money. The seller of the jacket (probably feeling guilty) gifts him a digital video camera. Georges then drives to a remote, mountainous location somewhere in France and checks into a dingy hotel, where he sets about trying to achieve a very unusual obsession.

He wants to be the only person in the world allowed to wear a jacket.

He also decides to film himself while he’s attempting to make that odd ambition a reality. His wife (quite sensibly) decides to block his bank account, so Georges talks receptive local barmaid, Denise (Adèle Haenel, last seen by B & B in the mesmerising Portrait of a Lady on Fire), into financing his efforts and, when he learns she is also obsessed with editing, even takes her on as his partner/producer.

When Denise urges him to provide her with more raw footage, Georges’ film sequences become increasingly violent, but the ensuing carnage is as throwaway as the rest of what’s going on here, played pretty much for laughs – and the problem is that I feel distanced from what’s happening on the screen and I don’t really care about any of the two-dimensional characters.

Still, at one hour and seventeen minutes, Deerskin is slight enough to chug along to its underwhelming conclusion without losing too much steam. But with all those awards under its belt, I can’t help wondering if this isn’t a case of The Emperor’s New Fringed Jacket.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

25/03/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The current global pandemic has had devastating consequences for so many people that it seems somehow petty to complain that, as ardent movie fans, we’re trying to deal with the much less disastrous irritation of having no new movies to review. But nevertheless, the problem exists.

Of course, films are readily available on streaming services such as Netflix , but there’s not much there that we haven’t already viewed elsewhere – so, when we hear about Curzon Home Cinema, where there’s no monthly contract and where recently released films can by rented for a set fee, we are naturally keen to try it out. Prices range from £4.99 to £9.99 and there are discounts for those who choose to become members. Portrait of a Lady On Fire is our first foray into the service.

This handsome French production has all the familiar tropes of a classic Gothic horror: an empty house in a remote location; dark candlelit corners; there’s even what appears to be a ‘ghostly’ presence haunting its corridors. But writer/director Céline Sçiamma clearly has other intentions and what gradually emerges here is a tragic love story enacted in a period when such love was strictly forbidden.

Portrait painter Marian (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an unnamed island. She’s been commissioned by Lan Contesse (Valerio Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel), who – after the death of her older sister – is about to be betrothed to a man she has never met. But Hélöise – understandably – really isn’t in the mood to have her portrait painted, so Marian is going to have to spend as much time as she can with her and produce the portrait in secret. Locked up together in the house, with just young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) for company, Marian and Hélöise grow closer by the day…

This is a gorgeous film, featuring beautifully nuanced performances from the two leads and gifted with some sumptuous cinematography. It’s a strikingly feminist story, clearly demonstrating the unfairness of womanhood in the 18th century. But it’s strongest suit is in the depiction of an artist at work, as Marian gradually builds her images from rough lines in charcoal to the finished product. There’s also a stunning set piece where we fully understand the full meaning of that unwieldy title and also a bitter-sweet coda that drives the film’s powerful message straight to the heart.

Curzon Home Cinema is surely the place to procure your cinematic fix.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney