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.
Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.
Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).
Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.
For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.
Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.
I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.
Throughout its long general election campaign India presented itself as ‘the world’s biggest democracy’, consolidating the sense of the Union of India – and that’s how most of us outside the country recognise its identity. But in reality India is not only a physical area the size of 20 European states with three times the population, but also with the same sense of diversity. There are more languages in India than in 20 European states and just as much cultural diversity. 2 States joins a long list of Indian films that use the ‘difference’ between those Indian cultures as a narrative device to add heft to the familiar Hindi romantic melodrama.
The main problem with 2 States is that it is a Karan Johar-produced mainstream film that leaves no convention unused in its assault on its audience. Nevertheless it is interesting as the fourth adaptation of an English language Indian novel by Chetan Bhagat. Two of those films have been hits – the monster hit 3 Idiots (and its Tamil remake Nanban) and the more modest hit of Kai Po Che (the most critically successful). The earlier Hello was deemed a flop. Bhagat is a phenomenon – a graduate of India’s top graduate schools who became a banker but then turned to writing. He has chosen to write in English, the English of the new young professional class rather than the literary English of those writers lauded in the West. His world is not the English public school/Oxbridge of Salman Rushdie, rather the world of the Indian middle-class (not the same as the UK ‘middle-class’) who are at least connected to the mass of the Indian population.
2 States is the most directly autobiographical of Bhagat’s novels and is presented as a version of Bhagat’s own struggle to marry the woman he loves. The problem is that in India (the book argues) you don’t just have to find someone you love, you have to convince your in-laws and then persuade your parents and your in-laws to get on with each other as well. This is a much greater problem when a Punjabi wants to marry a Tamilian. To be more precise, the problems intensify when the Punjabi boy’s family includes a hard-drinking father estranged from his wife (though still living in the home) and a mother struggling to keep up the lifestyle she thinks the family should have given her husband’s struggling business. Contrast this with the conservative and highly cultured Tamil family of vegetarians and teetotallers whose views on vulgar Punjabis could be seen as condescending. To make matters worse, like many other Punjabi families, this one is based in Delhi – losing roots in a strong community, whereas the Tamilians feel confident in their identity. Elsewhere in this blog we discuss other similar examples of Punjabi-Bengali relationships in Vicky Donor and Bengali-Tamil in Mr and Mrs Iyer. In the different context of a sports film Chak De India! manages to explore a wide range of prejudices against minority Indian cultures.
The abusive terms used (at least as translated in the English subs) are quite interesting. Ananya (Alia Bhatt) when she first meets Krish (Arjun Kapoor) insists that she is a ‘Tamilian’ and bridles at the suggestion she is a ‘Madrasan’. But Krish’s mother uses this term to abuse her. The ever-fascinating Urban Dictionary suggests that the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ goes back hundreds of years in India and the ‘angry Madrasan’ is a modern equivalent of this ancient prejudice referring to the ‘demon women’ of the South. The script for 2 States includes the terms Madrasan and Madrasi and also includes representations of the racism of skin colour that is prevalent in India. South Indians are assumed to be darker as Dravidians and North Indian forms of beauty for women assume lighter skin. The irony in 2 States is that Alia Bhatt who is cast as Ananya is light-skinned – which again is worked into the script. Hindi films of the 1970s up to the 1990s sometimes made ‘Madrasis’ into villains. The term was also used to cover all South Indians (it would once have referred to the Madras Presidency in colonial times). The renaming of Chennai has put this prejudicial observation more into focus.
Since the 1990s, Hindi films have travelled to the South for its ‘exotic’ locations, tending to treat Southern India like a tourist destination. 2 States does at least represent Tamil Nadu as a place of work, as well as spectacular settings for romance. I found most of the music for the film to be instantly forgettable but the song which worked for me is ‘Mast Magan’ which includes some of the best images of the Tamil Nadu shoot.
It’s a surprise that this high profile film was assigned to a novice director. As far as I can see Abhishek Varman had only assistant director experience before he worked on the script for 2 States and then directed it. In some ways it doesn’t matter too much that he does not have that much experience. The story is strong and the performances generally very good from all the leading cast members. There is a ‘bracketing’ narrative in which Krish is seemingly talking to a psychiatrist about the problems with his relationships and the suggestion is that at this point he has already written the draft of 2 States as a novel. This narrative trick features in several of Chetan Bhagat’s novels but I’m not sure it serves much purpose in the film. At other times it did feel that the commercial impetus of a Karan Johar production was painfully visible and without the acting talent on view the story would have sagged. Interestingly the next Bhagat adaptation – Revolution 2020 – looks like it is going to be in the hands of Rajkumar Gupta who made the excellent No One Killed Jessica. I hope that the new adaptation turns out more like Kai Po Che.
2 States is now a ‘super hit’ in India with over 100 crore (1 billion) rupees at the Indian box office and $4.5 million overseas
Song promo for ‘Mast Magan’ sung by Arijit Singh: