Monthly Archives: March 2020

  • Portrait of a Woman on Fire   Celine Sciamma (Fr; 2020)

    Portrait of a Woman on Fire   Celine Sciamma (Fr; 2020) Noemie Merlant; Adele Haenel

    viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 3rd March 2020; ticket £10.75

    slow burner

    Celine Scammer’s feminist panegyric, Portrait of a Woman on Fire, comes with heavyweight literary precursors.  Its title and ambiance surely reference the Henry James novel, Portrait of a Lady, and Sciamma’s characters, Heloise and Marianne symbolise eponymous resonant female progenitors.

    Heloise was a Medieval epistemologist, scholar, wife of Abelard, whose belles lettres are regarded as the first of the French female literary voices.   Nun mother and wife, she is strongly associated with Isles off Brittany where celebrated in song and dance, memory of her presence has elided into that of a shaman. Marianne is of course the personification of post revolutionary France, emblem of a certain faded modernity, ready to be reinvigorated as a feminist icon.

    Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady, follows its protagonist Isabel Archer’s determination to persue her own destiny. She is not betoken to the influences and manipulations of convention status or class. Isabel is of course not successful in avoiding the social machinations set to trap her, but she retains her complete independence of spirit. Life is lived on her terms. Likewise Sciamma’s Heloise is an intellectual imbued with a pride in her own independence; she is also the object of a relentless manipulation, to which she succumbs. But even in her succumbing she retains the spirit of her selfhood, a spirit captured by Sciamma in a shot, repeated three times, in which Marianne sees Heloise resplendent in her white ‘wedding’ gown, triumphant as ‘bride’. A shot which is emblematic not of her earthly fate but of her spiritual fate, a personal overcoming of the social fabric.

    The whole movie is shot in a manner that flaunts its impeccable literary credentials. It is a camera of detached painterly observation. Some shots in particular of the servant girl, called to mind Vermeer (Portrait of a Girl with a Pearl Earing sic.), and Marianne’s ‘vision of Heloise’ has a  pre-Raphaelite quality. The camera tracks pans tilts through colour and form, comes to rest in composition.   In her framing Sciamma suggests a world of surfaces a world only seen through the images presented, a world of Gainsborough portraits.

    But if Sciamma’s intention is to work against surface she creates, to crack it open and reveal what lies beneath, forbidden passion, pain, then she underestimates the strength and resilience of the way in which she has chosen to actually film her scenario. All the scripted elements seem contained by the physical surface tensions of the movie. The passion between Marianne and Heloise, the background feminist elements of menstruation and the abortion by the maid, all feel de-intensified artifices somehow alien to the studied observational design of the film. With its deliberately modulated cinematography, the emotions unleashed by the situations all blend together, merge into the cameras detached beautifully colourised imagery. Everything defaults to the tasteful keying of the painterly lens. Outside of Marianne’s vision of a transfigured Heloise, there are no moments of rupture or when the film stops. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an homogenous experience, ultimately the uniformity of construction becomes monotony, the film subsumed in blandness. This is a quality not characteristic of the James novel.

    The Henry James novels are on the surface in narrative terms, chaste. But the underlying intensity of James’ prose creates situations densely packed with erotic charge, all the stronger for never being discharged. A literary almost unbearable coitus interruptus characterises scenes in James’ novellas such Inside the Cage and A Turn of the Screw.    Sciamma is a product of a literalist age in which we have to see people pissing menstruating in case we didn’t know about or understand these things.

    Restraint is a a rarely exercised artistic choice in contemporary films, in particular when writers directors feel the need to make statements of their credentials, so of course Sciamma choses to have her love affair consummated for the camera. But if you consider a classic film with a similar plot mechanism, Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca, it works with effect because Bogart and Bergman don’t make out physically. The tensions of erotic interplay in Casablanca, as in James novels, are the forces that define and deliver.

    By delivering Marianne and Heloise into the physical realm, Sciamma makes a politically correct statement, but works against the grain of her own material. Her film that is not so much Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as Portrait of a Lady who gets Everything. In tune with the times.

    Adrin Neatrour











  • Midnight Family Luke Lorentzen (Doc; USA: 2019

    Midnight Family     Luke Lorentzen (Doc; USA: 2019)

    viewed: Tyneside Cinema Newcastle; 24 Feb 2020; ticket:£10.75

    one man band

    Life with the Ochoa family’s privately run Mexico City ambulance service caught on camera.

    The problem with the Ochoa ambulance service is that when they come to scoop you up off the street and whisk you off to the hospital of their choice, can you trust them? A difficult question in what is certainly a difficult situation for any unfortunate victim of an accident or act of violence.  

    But the same question arises in my mind in relation to Luke Lorentzen. Can I trust him as a film maker? Is he just another ambulance chaser wanting to make a quick buck turning over a film based on sharp practice? Lorentzen, modestly claims multiple credits for direction, writing, editing and camera. But the question arises who/or what is keeping Lorentzen on track?  In claiming total control without the moderation of any key production personnel this is one man taking all the key decisions in relation to narrative form and structure of his film without the discipline of professional dialogue or editorial discourse.

    If Lorentzen made ‘Midnight Family’ without the moderating influence of professional discourse, did he adopt some imperative or at least a moral compass to guide his decision making? If so were these ethical outriggers at least apparent, allowing the viewer some help in evaluating and understanding his film?

    In this sense the film pivots about Lorentzen as much as the Ochea family. But of course whereas we are allowed see something of the Ocheas, we have no basis for evaluating the grounds on which Lorentzen either shot or selected his footage in the edit.  We see something of the family Ochea but we see nothing of the director writer editor cameraman. Lorentzen who is making all the decisions is hidden from us. He is absent; but his presence and manipulations are everywhere. Without some insight into intention, Lorentzen’s movie is morally vacuous.

    Lorentzen’s response might be along the lines that he has no need of collaborators to balance and affect his decision making, that the film he has shot tells the story of a failed and failing emergency intervention service.

    The question arises: is it enough for Lorentzen to shoot a lot of raw looking digital footage, structure and shape the material then edit it and then make any sort of claim for the film.  What sort of claim? Well no claims are specifically made. Perhaps Lorentzen believes it is enough just to cobble together his material as a spectacle and put it out on the fashionable international doc circuit as a sort of Kantian Thing in Itself, exploiting a certain market appetite for salacious shocking situations.   In Midnight Family things are revealed such as the inadequacy of Mexico City’s emergency ambulance service (which seems unlikely to come as a surprise to the people of that City); the equivocal nature of the Ochea family in relation to their enterprise, sandwiched between saving lives and saving themselves from poverty.


    Midnight family purports to show the surface of the Mexico City Private Ambulance business. But it is difficult to take on trust the surface when we are barred from seeing the underlying forces that give shape to what we see. And of course these underlying forces comprise mainly the socio-economic situation in Mexico but also the decisions made by Lorentzen.   Was all his footage actual or was some specifically shot to be edited into the final cut? In the film’s penultimate sequence, was the woman in the front seat of the ambulance the mother of the victim who was dying in the back of the vehicle? What sort of relationship did the Ocheas have with the director/ writer?  What was the nature of the agreement made with the Ocheas by the director? Without indications of what is going on my feeling is that this is a film corrupted by absence of information.

    Lorentzen’s film follows the hallowed path of many a doc feature: there is material only to sustain a 60 minute movie; so it has to be stretched to get close to the 90 min feature mark. The stretching involves repetition and regurgitation of the same material in slightly different contexts. Midnight Family is seriously over long as well as short on justification.

    Adrin Neatrour