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Indie Focus: Feel the heat of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Times critics Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang published their year-end best-of lists. Neither went for a straight top 10, and both provide insightful snapshots into the movie year that was, spotlighting films such as “Parasite,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Knives Out” and “The Irishman.”

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For this week’s episode of our entertainment podcast “The Reel,” I spoke to actor Taron Egerton about playing Elton John in “Rocketman.”

“I am not doing an impersonation of him,” Egerton said. “I want to choose my words carefully, but it can feel a little thin I think sometimes, when something is about mimicry. And what we wanted to do was create our own character around the idea of Elton. And I think that bit of wisdom, which was largely pushed by the great man himself, really facilitated the freedom we found.”

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This weekend, the UCLA Film and Television archive will celebrate the release of J. Hoberman’s new book on cinema of the 1980s, “Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan.” On Friday there will be screenings of Ted Kotcheff’s “First Blood” and John Carpenter’s “They Live,” and on Saturday there will be a double bill of Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future” and Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan.” All four films will be screened from archival 35mm prints, and Hoberman is scheduled to appear both nights.

The New Beverly will be showing a double bill of Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and “Far From Heaven,” also both on 35mm, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, and Wednesday, Dec. 11. Cinematographer Ed Lachman, a true wizard of light who shot both those films as well as “Desperately Seeking Susan,” is scheduled to appear in person on Wednesday.

For information on upcoming L.A. Times screenings and Q&A events, visit events.latimes.com/screenings.

Adèle Haenel in the movie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Adèle Haenel in the movie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
(Lilies Films)

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

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Among the most ecstatically received films of the year, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is getting a limited one-week qualifying run now before returning to more theaters for Valentine’s Day. Written and directed by French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, the movie is a powerful period romantic drama about the attraction between two women when one (Noémie Merlant) is sent to a remote chateau to paint a portrait of the other (Adele Haenel) for an arranged marriage. The movie is a moody and sensual depiction of desire and also has a pointed perspective on who gets to create art and under what circumstances.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang declared the film “an act of reclamation: a lesbian romance in which tenderness and eroticism take the place of objectification, and a period piece that encourages the audience to reflect on the innumerable female artists who have been historically overshadowed by their male contemporaries (plus ça change). … What makes it a great movie, rather than a list of ideologically correct imperatives, is the specificity and delicacy with which Sciamma has shaped the material — the way each new idea seems to emerge from the love story like a whisper. She’s interested in her characters’ thoughts but not in reducing them to mouthpieces; she’s alive to the beauty of their faces and bodies but also the singularity of their hearts and minds. She sees everyone in this picture whole.”

Justin also interviewed Sciamma when the film premiered earlier this year at Cannes, where it won two prizes. Notions of looking and representation are crucial to the film, as Sciamma detailed. “I grew up in a world where stories and images were made and told by men. So I know this world very well. I am moved by this world, I identify myself with the male gaze, I grew up with the male gaze, I’ve been excited by the male gaze. I’m a product of that culture,” she said.

“But I also have my experience as a woman, and so I know both worlds. So I guess with females, it should be acknowledged that we’re more hybrid. We can be anything. Maybe we’re more free to create.”

For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “Again and again Sciamma finds ways to deliver meaning cinematically rather than in words, whether through the placement of faces in the frame or a detail revealed obliquely in a mirror. In addition to being a swoon-worthy romance — a bodice-ripper in which corsets are not torn but slowly, lovingly unlaced — this is a meditation on feminism, art, and feminist art. … Without ever needing to spell it out, Sciamma makes clear that the weight of patriarchy means that this idyll by the sea may be these young women’s one chance to experience anything like real passion or freedom.”

For rogerebert.com, Tomris Laffly wrote, “‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is its own, wondrous, magnificent thing; a complete artistic vision where every directorial step is refined and each thematic probe, seamlessly weaved in. … Sciamma’s gift to 2019 sets a highest standard for any romance that will come after it.”

Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sheila in “In Fabric,” a film from director Peter Strickland.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sheila in “In Fabric,” a film from director Peter Strickland.
(A24)

‘In Fabric’

English filmmaker Peter Strickland has become one of the world’s leading practitioners of bizarre genre deconstructions, with such gleeful perversions as “Berberian Sound Studio” and “The Duke of Burgundy.” His latest, “In Fabric,” is the story of a haunted dress and what happens when a woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys it from a department store.

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For The Times, Justin Chang reviewed “In Fabric” along with Jessica Hausner’s “Little Joe.” He noted that Strickland has become “a witty and imaginative fetishist of various strains of exploitation cinema” whose “elaborate homages to the B- and C-grade entertainments of yesteryear go beyond simple mimicry or mockery into a kind of cracked celebratory pastiche.” Chang added: “‘In Fabric’ unfolds in a twilight zone where capitalism is a kind of dark magic, people become slaves to shopping, and the language of corporate-speak casts its own cultish spell. “

Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Strickland, Jean-Baptiste, co-star Gwendoline Christie and costume designer Jo Thompson for a story that will be publishing soon. Strickland referred to the film as a “retail nightmare,” adding, “I didn’t want to make a fashion film or an anti-consumerist film. It’s more exploring ideas about our response to clothing. But I didn’t want to make anything didactic, really. I felt that’s not my place.”

At Slate, Inkoo Kang wrote, “Strickland is fully aware of the innate silliness of his premise, which may be why the giallo-inspired, kink-flavored film takes the form of a diptych — the first hour a straightforward tale of a sympathetic victim, the second a metahorror story that redirects the audience’s identification closer to the dress, or at least away from its target. If you think a movie about a homicidal gown is dumb, Strickland seems to say, wait till I get you to root for the dress.”

For the Guardian, Mark Kermode wrote, “A heady mix of intoxicating nostalgia, clothing-related alchemy and horror-inflected twisted comedy, it’s an impressively uncategorizable affair, seemingly inspired by Strickland’s traumatic/ecstatic memories of being dragged to department stores as a child. … it’s a film designed to provoke the tingling sensations of an ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’ (Google it) that will leave you laughing, squirming and scratching your head, often all at the same time.”

Agnès Varda in “Varda by Agnès.”
Agnès Varda in “Varda by Agnès.”
(Janus Films)

‘Varda by Agnès’

The idea of women finding ways to tell their own stories is a key part of both “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and the upcoming adaptation of “Little Women,” which makes the timing for “Varda by Agnès” kind of perfect. The last film completed by the late French filmmaker Agnès Varda is a joyful look back at her life and career, and a continuation of her personal documentaries such as the Oscar-nominated “Faces Places.”

In a review for The Times, Robert Abele called the film “thoroughly charming and expectedly clever,” while adding, “You could call the movie a master class, but it’s also a monologue spoken from the heart, and seen through her captivating eyes.”

At the New Yorker, Richard Brody called it “a grand, warmhearted testament to [Varda’s] lifetime of creative connections, her art of self-transformation, and her relentless transformation of the art of cinema itself.”

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Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.


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