SPOILER-FREE Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

This French film (in limited release in the U.S.) was runner-up at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; the South Korean film- Parasite- was the winner. It is written/directed by a woman (Celine Sciamma) and focuses on the love between two women living in 18th century France- an independent/well-traveled painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and a noblewoman educated in a convent, Heloise (Adele Haenel). It also has much to say about being a female artist, as well as the power of bonds formed between women (as friends across social classes). Through research, Sciamma discovered that there were hundreds of women who not only posed as models- they were also painters in this time period.

Marianne travels to the remote island of Brittany where she has been hired by La Comtesse (model turned actress Valeria Golino- now in her mid-50s) to paint a portrait. The subject will be her daughter, Heloise, who is betrothed to a nobleman in Italy; this stranger will marry her if he likes the picture. This was commonly done in this time; in S3 E6 of The Tudors (Search for a New Queen), Henry VIII has Hans Holbein- the most famous portrait artist of that time- paint a potential spouse, Anne of Cleves. There was a painter who came before Marianne, but his work was unfinished; Heloise refused to pose. La Comtesse says that the work must be done in secret; Heloise is told that Marianne is a companion for walks. Marianne settles into a small parlor on the first floor w/ her supplies; she learns a bit more about the situation from a young maid in the household, Sophie (Luana Bajrami).

This is an unique film that has been loved by many critics; the theater was mostly filled when my friend and I saw it last weekend. Time is taken to build up the characters and move the story forward; it has a powerful payoff. I was surprised to be feeling emotional in the last act; I’ve seen many films, but not quite like this! There is no musical score, aside from one song. As several critics noted, every shot looks like a painting. The co-leads seem to be opposites, at first, w/ Marianne as the dominant (more interesting) character. In time, they are seen as equals; both are strong-willed individuals who chafe against the limitations placed upon them. The actors have terrific chemistry together! The love scenes are done in a sensitive manner; this is the (rare) female gaze in cinema. There is also much natural beauty to admire- ocean waves, towering cliffs, and untouched beaches.

Holiday Film Noir: "The Reckless Moment" (1949) starring James Mason & Joan Bennett

This splendidly nuanced work has emerged as one of the standouts of the noir cycle…

Ophuls… drew from Bennett her most natural, believable performance. She has never been better.

Near perfect, this is a marvellous and magical non stop emotional thriller with the camera moving with such fluidity we can only stare in wonder.

James Mason is great as a refined crook who suddenly finds himself feeling empathy for others. Can’t think of too many actors who could pull this off…

Traumatic as Lucia’s experience is, Donnelly’s devotion to her connects Lucia with the love and sexuality that may be missing from her marriage.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett, then 39 y.o.) is an upper middle-class wife/mother w/ an energetic teen son and stubborn/beautiful 17 y.o. daughter. Lucia’s husband, Tom, has to go away on business to Berlin (during the holidays). The family lives in an ocean-front home in Balboa, 50 miles south of LA. Bea, who is an art student, is involved w/ an older man, Ted Darby. He is sleazy and lives in a sketchy hotel in LA. When Lucia realizes what’s going on, she warns the man to stay away from Bea (who is underage). Ted ends up dead on the beach, not far from the Harper’s house. Lucia thinks Bea was responsible, so quickly takes action to protect her daughter (as well as her family, respectability, and lifestyle).

When the dead body of the man is discovered by police, they suspect murder! Lucia is visited by an Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, then just 40 y.o. in his third American movie). He has love letters written by Bea to Darby; these could be damaging if turned over to police or the press. The price for the letters is $5,000 (which Lucia doesn’t have on hand). Donnelly’s boss Nagle wants payment- fast. Soon, the crooked man finds himself empathizing w/ – something you don’t expect- and developing feelings for the housewife.

She’s lucky to have a mother like you. -Donnelly comments

Everyone has a mother like me! You probably had one, too! -Lucia retorts

This is a tight, tense, and quite effective movie (which I learned about when browsing online through holiday classics playing at AFI). It’s an unique blend of melodrama and noir; you can see it (free) on YouTube. The director, Max Ophuls, is an immigrant from Germany; he worked in several European cities before coming to the U.S. in 1941. Often times, the outsider has a fresh take on something that others take at face value. Mason here may remind you of Gregory Peck (tall w/ high cheekbones and dark hair), BUT w/ potentially dangerous vibes. IMO, to be an effective leading man, a actor MUST be able to project a hint of danger. Some actors didn’t stray (or perhaps get chances to stray) from the “gentleman” role. Though Mason is British, his Irish accent is very good. Bennett does a great job- her character is quick-thinking, determined, and tough as a mother. Lucia gets drawn into the seedy side of life, much to her dismay and discomfort, but she has the guts to go there.

Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.

Hitchcock in Color: “Rope”(1948) starring James Stewart, John Dall, & Farley Grainger

1. The story unravels in typical Hitchcock fashion. The suspense is built, then lessened by some well timed comedy, and then built again to a final crescendo.

2. The dialogue is natural and flowing. The finest bit of timing involves a swinging kitchen door, the rope, and the fear of discovery.

3. ..it seems to be a very modern film.

4. There’s plenty of black humor throughout.

5. He manages to fit in many of his trademark angles and closeups in, without it seeming forced.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Grainger- later starred in Strangers on a Train) are two young men who share a spacious NYC apt. They consider themselves “intellectually superior” to their friend, David Kentley, and decide to murder him. In the first scene, they strangle David (w/ a rope), place the body in an old chest, and hold a small party. The guests incl. David’s father, his fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), and their former prep school housemaster, Rupert Caddell (James Stewart). While Brandon is cocky and keeps joking, Philip is fearful (esp. since Rupert is at the party).

The story was loosely based on the (real-life) case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who in 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old boy. They committed the murder (called “the crime of the century”) as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority, which, they thought, enabled them to carry out a “perfect crime” and absolved them of responsibility for their actions. This movie is very different from Patrick Hamilton’s play which was set in England. Sir Alfred Hitchcock made his own adaptation w/ Hume Cronyn (also a prolific character actor); they created new dialogue and characters for this adaptation.

This is Hitchcock’s first movie filmed in color and also his shortest (w/ a running time near 80 mins). The theatrical trailer features footage shot specifically for the ad that takes place before the beginning of the movie. David (the victim) sits on a park bench and speaks with Janet before leaving to meet Brandon and Phillip. Stewart narrates the sequence, noting that’s the last time Janet (and the audience) would see him alive. This movie, considered the director’s most controversial (at that time), was banned in several American cities b/c of the implied homosexuality of Phillip and Brandon.

Rope was filmed entirely in the studio, except for the opening credits (where we see the street outside the apt). The clouds seen out the window were made out of fiberglass. Hitchcock created a (new) way of editing by making the movie look like one continuous shot. He later said that the 10 min. takes were “a stunt” (a challenge for himself). Most of the props and some of the walls were movable. The cast had to avoid tripping on cables on the floor, b/c of the moving cameras and lighting.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see more than once to appreciate, esp. if you saw it as a teen or young adult. There are undercurrents that less mature viewers may not get, particularly the nature of the relationship between the two killers. Stewart is one of my faves, but some critics/viewers have commented that this “dark” role would’ve suited someone like James Mason better. This was the only movie Stewart made with Hitchcock that he did not like; he felt miscast as the professor. The actor was paid $300,000 (a huge portion of the $1.5M budget). The first choices for Philip and Rupert were Montgomery Clift and Carey Grant, but they both passed (due to the gay subtext).

Early Hitchcock Movie: “The 39 Steps” (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll

An unassuming Canadian bachelor, Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), living in London tries to help a mysterious woman w/ a German accent, Miss Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who turns out to be a double agent. She is killed in Hannay’s hotel room, he is accused of the murder, and goes on the run to save himself. With a map and some details (provided by Miss Smith), he also hopes to stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information. He travels by train to Scotland, hoping not to be noticed by his fellow passengers and the police. The papers are all covering the incident, of course, and some people are bound to be intrigued by the details. When Hannay pops into a car w/ a pretty blonde woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), he begs her to help him. As the police approach, he grabs her and kisses her (pretending like their newlyweds). She is not having it, so tells the police that she has never seen this man before.

In Scotland, Hannay travels on foot for some miles, looking for a certain town. He comes across a farmer in a very rural area, Mr. Crofter, who says he can stay overnight at this little house. The wife, who is much younger and mismatched w/ her gruff husband, is played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft (one of the most respected actresses of her time). When Mr. Crofter is out, Hannay and Mrs. Crofter chat about life in London, and she develops a crush on him. Later, when he tells her about his plight, she is very empathetic. After her husband gets jealous, she helps Hannay escape. The local cops are close on his trail. Hannay finds the house of a wealthy/powerful British man, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), just in time for a Sunday lunch. He runs across Pamela (again), and more improbable adventures ensue!

Some critics and viewers consider this to be Hitchcock’s most economical and best film. The 39 Steps is a romantic adventure (Hannay and Pamela share moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a rom com) with the usual Hitchcock humor; there is also a lot of metaphor and symbolism. Many of Hitchcock’s typical themes are here: marriage (of different types), human relationships, and types and levels of deception. It’s well-written and each character has a distinct look, attitude, and personality. The plot provides suspense, comedy, and drama in a rather short period of time.

You can watch the full movie (for free) here: