I was relieved to get to see this the day before the cinemas closed. The buzz has been about for months and the film exceeded my expectation. It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little Women, Weathering With You, So Long, My Son, Parasite, Bacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire tops them all.
Unusually, the Anglophone distributors’ title is better than the original because ‘lady’, rather than ‘girl/woman’, suggests the film is about social class as well as gender. It also references Henry James’ novel, adapted by Jane Campion (UK-US, 1996) as her follow up to her feminist classic The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993). We’re straight into Piano territory at the start of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s new film; she won ‘best screenplay at Cannes’. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an island on the Breton coast and is dropped off on her own on the beach. Unlike Ada in The Piano, Marianne’s art is her painting, which she has to jump into the sea to save. She’s been hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter in order to guarantee a marriage to a wealthy Milanese ‘gentleman’. The daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, also in Water Lilies) – surely named for the 12th century proto-feminist nun – refuses to be painted; she’s been hauled out of a nunnery after her sister’s suicide. Presumably her sister killed herself to avoid the fate awaiting Héloïse. Marianne has to pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint her at night.
What follows is a patient development of their relationship and, to an extent, with the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami – seen in School’s Out). There’s too much going on in the film to delve deeply into it after just one viewing. Sciamma (whose Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007) and Girlhood I quite liked; the latter received ‘rave’ reviews) allows her camera to be still, allowing the superb actors to take the weight of the narrative; the production design, by Thomas Grézaud, and Clare Mathon’s (of Atlantics) cinematography are fabulous. This stillness evokes portraiture which, of course, is one of the themes of the film: the representation of a person and, more specifically, a woman. The ‘female gaze’, men are virtually absent, is paramount in the film and Sciamma’s ‘queer eye’ offers a different way of eroticising the female body (though in a Guardian interview she says they didn’t get it in France). The key to understanding representation is knowing ‘who is speaking’ and here the voice, Sciamma’s obviously but also the characters’, is indisputably female. In contrast Blue is the Warmest Colour reveals itself as male fantasy. The film also manages to deal with the erasure of women artists from art history: it is a very rich text indeed!
Some of the specifically female things we don’t usually get to see in cinema are shown: period pains and abortion. Sophie has the latter and Héloïse demands Marianne look; in effect chiding the spectator at the same time because ‘not looking’ is an attractive option. Unusually for melodrama Sciamma ‘dials down’ the emotion in much of the film, the characters are virtually taciturn, but in this scene a baby plays with Sophie’s face during the operation to emotionally devastating affect. The repressed emotions serve to heighten the moments when the ‘dam breaks’, including one of the most emotionally draining final shots I’ve ever seen.
Sciamma’s use of music is fascinating as I didn’t notice any non-diegetic (on the soundtrack) music, though two composers are credited. Early in the film Marianne tries to play the storm sequence from Summer (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons) on a clavichord (I think); the payoff for this is in the aforementioned last shot. The other music is an apparent folk song (actually created by Sciamma) of the local female peasantry at a bonfire. The modernity of the chants suddenly breaks the diegesis (narrative world) of the 18th century as timeless sexual attraction between the protagonists is at last acknowledged by them.
I’ve already praised Mathon’s cinematography: she makes some of the scenes look like paintings and one where the lady, Héloïse, is doing the food prep whilst the maid embroiders is a startling utopian image. The utopian possibility is explained by the isolated setting on an island and many scenes on the beach, which is a liminal space where change is possible.
Portrait of a Lady is a truly great film and is available online at Curzon Home Cinema.
This was the second of my ¡Viva! screenings to offer a film by a female writer-director, Paula Hernández, and to focus on a young woman. The other aspect of the film’s narrative shared with the earlier A Thief’s Daughter is the sense of ‘show not tell’ and therefore some work for the audience in understanding relationships. In other ways The Sleepwalkers is a different kind of narrative.
The narrative begins with the sudden realisation by Luisa (Erica Rivas) that something is wrong. She wakes in the night and finds her young teenage daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía) standing naked in the family apartment with menstrual blood trickling down her leg but unaware of her actions. The next day Luisa and Ana with Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski) drive to a family New Year holiday in the countryside. Emilio’s mother Memé lives in the large family house with only her housekeeper-companion Hilda but today Emilio and his siblings Sergio and Inés and their children will gather for a few days. Luisa is concerned that Ana has not been confiding in her but in Emilio’s family there seems to be a ‘freer’, more ‘liberal’ attitude to parenting. The New Year holiday corresponds to the family summer holidays in European films, particularly those from Southern Europe with hot weather, days by the pool, al fresco meals and always the possibility of tempers flaring and old feuds emerging. When the first dispute/niggle surfaces – Ana and her parents are sleeping in the house rather than the annexe where they usually stay – it is clear that this holiday will have its frictions. The ‘provocateur’ is the appearance of Alejo, Sergio’s eldest son who may be an older teenager or a young man in his twenties – his age and his history as a teenager are not clear. Ana is an attractive young girl, much younger than she looks, who has some memories of Alejo from earlier family gatherings a few years ago. The young man sets out to flirt with both Ana and her mother.
There is also a sub-plot familiar from the family melodrama. Memé has decided she wants to sell the house and its extensive grounds (a stretch of river, woods and a swimming pool) and a couple of prospective buyers turn up to visit but are turned away because of the family holiday. Memé’s late husband Lacho established a publishing house and both Emilio and Sergio are involved in the company, but there appear to be disputes about how it should operate. Though these issues are referred to, they don’t appear to be a central narrative concern, but rather a way of explaining some of the tension.
This is a slow-paced drama with emphasis often on looks and small gestures. I don’t think there is any explanation of why Sergio and Inés are present without their spouses – or perhaps I missed it? Possibly Sergio’s sons don’t all have the same mother. Sergio has three sons. The younger two treat their cousin Ana as simply someone to spend time with in the pool or around the bonfire. Inés has a baby who cries much of the time and she doesn’t really feature as a character. In fact Inés seems to be there almost as an illustration of how women are treated in the family. Luisa shows concern about the stress of dealing with the baby but ironically Memé as the matriarch seems less interested. The tension rises throughout the narrative and leads to a dramatic climax that I did find shocking both for the actions themselves and because of how the escalation of emotion was constructed.
The Sleepwalkers is a skilfully made film. Paula Hernández has had a long career. This is her fourth feature as a director and she is aided by Iván Gierasinchuk’s cinematography and Rosario Suárez’s editing. The performances are generally very good and the mother-daughter pairing is excellent. I read the title to refer to both mother and daughter whose actions tend to vacillate between a clear-eyed sense of where things could be headed, but also include behaviour which seems almost instinctive in encouraging the opposite. Typically, the more Luisa reaches out to re-engage with Ana, the more Emilio seems to block the action as he has other concerns and the future of the marriage is being pitted against his wider family concerns. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I found it impressive though perhaps a little too slow-paced and I would have liked to know a little more about the minor characters outside the central quintet of Luisa, Ana, Emilio, Sergio and Alejo. I don’t think in the end that the film qualifies as a family melodrama. There is some diegetic music but mostly it’s direct sound throughout. In this sense the trailer below is misleading.
This year’s ¡Viva! Festival of Spanish and Latin American Cinema at HOME in Manchester has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and HOME has closed. We’ve been privileged to have reported on many previous ¡Viva! festivals and we were all set to visit the second week of the festival. Fortunately, thanks to the festival organisers, we are able to bring you at least a few reports on the films screened.
A Thief’s Daughter was the opening film of the festival. It’s the début feature of Catalan writer-director Belén Funes and the festival brochure namechecks both Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers as reference points. Certainly this is a social realist narrative and its central character is Sara a young woman in her early twenties in a working-class district of Barcelona. It has that mixture of family melodrama and an exploration of ‘precarity’ that is familiar from the two recent Ken Loach-Paul Laverty films, but I think other aspects of the film are different. Funes appears to belong to the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of storytellers. It therefore takes some time to work out all the relationships in the film and the problems that Sara faces.
We first meet Sara working as a cleaner, but we see that she is attempting to find other work. She has an infant son Joel who seems to be left each day with either Sara’ room-mate with or with Flora, an older woman who runs a bar (where Sara sometimes works). Dani is the young man who we assume may be Joel’s father but though he does look after Joel on occasions he doesn’t appear to want to be with Sara – something she regrets. But as the film’s title implies, the narrative conflict is generated by the return of Sara’s father from prison. Father and daughter have been apart for some time and Sara is in two minds as to whether she misses him, needs his support or wants him out of her life completely. The current cause of the rift is Sara’s young brother, Martín, a 7 year-old with an injured foot who appears to be living in some form of children’s home. (The family details are actually quite complicated with hints dropped here and there but not fully spelt out.)
Sara herself is also in some form of public housing facility and it is time limited, presumably on the basis that she needs support until she has settled employment and Joel’s care is sorted out. This lack of detail about welfare services is one of the main differences between this film and Loachian social realism. Funes does not generate a critique of Spanish welfare services, or of employers. Sara is generally treated with efficiency and courtesy. She has several different jobs that we either see or hear about and eventually finds a good job in a school/college catering team. At this point a couple of clues emerge that suggest that her education was interrupted. During a formal interview she struggles to articulate answers to standard questions even though her work displays her intelligence and diligence. Sara has a hearing aid and again there is no explanation for this. Does she have a congenital condition or was her hearing damaged in an accident? There are some suggestions that perhaps her father was violent towards her some years earlier. All of these questions come together in the final scenes when Sara attends a family court hearing in which she applies to become her brother’s guardian and therefore to recreate a family in which her father loses control over Martín. There is no easy resolution to the narrative and I found the final scenes very moving and quite shocking. Again the court officials and the two advocates are not presented as uncaring, but we do get to appreciate how ill-prepared poor Sara is.
A Thief’s Daughter is a form of anti-melodrama. This is certainly a drama of family relationships but it is presented without any obvious forms of ‘excess’. Although there are moments of diegetic music, there is no music score as such (or perhaps I didn’t notice a score?). Mainly the drama is played out with only direct sound. The mise en scène is primarily functional, showing the action and again I didn’t notice much in the way of expressionist camerawork or editing. This is not to say that the film is dull to watch and Neus Ollé as cinematographer and Bernat Aragonés as editor are experienced filmmakers who serve the narrative well. The performances are very good. Sara and her father are played by the real life father-daughter pairing of Greta and Eduard Fernández. They have played together before and Eduard is a very experienced actor. I have seen him before in previous ¡Viva! films including Marsella (2014) and Truman (2015). On this occasion, Greta has taken centre stage and she shared the acting prize at San Sebastian with Nina Hoss. Overall, there is no heightened dramatic drive to the narrative. Instead we are invited to get to know Sara and to care for her, following her on various journeys and worrying about all the tasks she has to complete. Somehow the lack of any narrative devices to increase the tension and despair of the character (something the Loach-Laverty Sorry We Missed You tends to over-use?) means that the final scenes are more powerful.
The film is in Spanish with some Catalan. The film was co-written with producer Marçal Cebrian and she and Belén Funes had already made a short film with the same characters in 2014. Reading other festival reviews, I get the impression that the established Catalan filmmaker Isobel Coixet helped A Thief’s Daughter get into production. If so, I’m glad she did. This was a strong opening to the festival. Here’s a Spanish trailer, the English subbed one appears to have no sound.
One of the magazines freely available at GFF is The Skinny and I read an interview with Mark Cousins about his 5-part Women Make Film which screened in the last few days of the festival. Cousins points out that people who haven’t seen many films made by women often generalise that “Women makes films about relationships” or “Women make films with more empathy”. He’s right of course. This kind of generalisation is damaging and stops many films directed by women for being seen as films by directors who are great filmmakers and who can make all kinds of films. However, it’s also true that when women write and direct films they sometimes do create narratives that have a strongly gendered perspective. Agnes Joy is a ‘comic maternal melodrama’, written by Silja Hauksdóttir, Gagga Jonsdottir and Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir. It’s directed by Silja Hauksdóttir as her second cinematic feature after several years working in television. I should also point out that the story idea came from Mikael Torfason, a novelist and film writer.
Rannveig (Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir) is a woman in her forties who we first meet at a family/clan gathering where she is searching for her 19 year-old daughter who is supposed to be entertaining the party by playing the violin. But Agnes (Donna Cruz) is hungover and reluctant. Rannveig’s problems are several. As well as Agnes she has to deal with Einar (Þorsteinn Bachmann), her husband who seems no longer interested in anything except watching Netflix and a mother who has retired from running the family business and now demands her daughter’s attention. Rannveig now has to run the family business, a small distribution firm. Here, she has lost interest but finds herself at loggerheads with the staff who want to employ cheap migrant labour (unionised and un-regulated). When she visits the surgery to get some sleeping pills she is angered when she receives a lecture by the young (female) doctor about the symptoms of early menopause. When Agnes announces that she doesn’t want to go on the long-planned holiday to the Philippines it seems like the last straw.
The disruptive element in the narrative is the arrival of a new neighbour, Hreinn who comes to borrow an electrical extension cable. Iceland has a population of less than 400,000 but produces a range of films and TV programmes. The same actors appear in several projects and must be easily spotted out and about. Hreinn is played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson who appeared in all episodes of the first two series of Trapped, the crime fiction series shown internationally. Agnes Joy makes Hreinn into a jobbing actor and allows him to be recognised as in the cast of Trapped. This postmodern touch is ironic since Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir as Rannveig is also in all the episodes of Trapped, but she’s playing the owner of a business not an actor. I’m not sure how the Icelandic audience copes with this but it must be strange. Anyway, Hreinn appears looking not unlike a mid-career Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick 1987?) with stubble and a kind of tousled charm. Rannveig and Einar invite him to a barbecue and the booze flows. Mother and daughter are vulnerable.
I won’t spoil all the plotlines. As the film’s title implies, Agnes has at least equal screentime as her mother. There doesn’t seem to be any discrimination towards her as an adopted daughter. The proposed Philippines trip is the only indication as to her background. The conflict with her parents is mainly down to her wish to leave school without passing all her exams. So far, Agnes has spent most of her free time working/hanging out at a local store with her friend Skari, who doesn’t seem too adventurous. The one aspect of Agnes’s identity that is foregrounded is her body image. Agnes is a powerfully built young woman, something which the script is careful to see as a positive feature. Unlike Skari, Agnes does have ambitions, the first part of which is to get out of the small town of Akranes and eventually move to Rekyavik. Leaving school is the first step. In one scene we see her seemingly asleep in class while the teacher tries to engage his students in a close analysis of the structure and writing style of the Norse sagas. It seems like a commentary of some kind on contemporary Iceland.
Agnes Joy is a conventional narrative with some darker moments leavening the predominantly comedic tone. The script is interested primarily in Rannveig and Agnes and the men are simply narrative agents to help create the situations in which the women’s stories can be developed. Nothing is particularly surprising but the comic situations work and the overall effect is that of a crowd pleaser. I certainly enjoyed it.