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Indie Focus: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ reignites for lovers

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

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So the Academy Awards happened last weekend. (And did they ever.)

Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won four Oscars, including best picture. Glenn Whipp had an overview of the movie’s path to victory, including what it means for the first non-English-language film ever to take the top prize.

Justin Chang wrote about the “Parasite” wins as well, noting, “‘Parasite’ has dealt a much-needed slap to the American film industry’s narcissism, its long-standing love affair with itself, its own product and its own image. It has startled the academy into recognizing that no country’s cinema has a monopoly on greatness — no small thing at a time when trumped-up nationalism and xenophobia have a way of seeping into our art no less than our politics.”

Amy Kaufman was backstage during the show and wrote about some moments that didn’t make it onto TV. She then scampered over to the exclusive Vanity Fair after-party, where among other people she caught up with young “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” star Julia Butters to find out what became of the turkey sandwich the actress had stashed in her bag earlier in the evening.

The day before the Oscars, Christina Schoellkopf and I were at the Spirit Awards, where with zero Oscar noms between them, “The Farewell” and “Uncut Gems” dominated the day. Earlier, I took a look at how the Spirit Awards enact the kind of inclusivity that other awards groups talk about but struggle to make real. As writer Mark Harris said, “The idea that diversity is the enemy of quality is a form of prejudice, and there’s really nothing to do but try to argue that out person by person until they finally get it.”

And there are a lot of great movies coming out this week — more than even fit in the format of this newsletter. Justin Chang reviewed Kantemir Balagov’s Russian World War II drama “Beanpole” paired with Swedish-born filmmaker Levan Akin’s Georgian-set “And Then We Danced.”

And Kimber Myers reviewed Tanya Wexler’s Buffalo, N.Y.-set “Buffaloed,” a sharp scammer comedy with a rollicking, invigorating star performance by Zoey Deutch.

On Wednesday, Feb. 19, we have a screening of the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma followed by a Q&A with director Autumn de Wilde. For information and tickets on it and other upcoming L.A. Times screenings and Q&A events, visit events.latimes.com/screenings/indiefocus.

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was reviewed by Justin Chang when it received a brief qualifying run late last year. The breathtaking queer historical romantic drama starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel is now getting a broader release, and it should easily be one of the best films of both last year and this year.

I spoke to Sciamma, Merlant and Haenel at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The movie invites a viewer in, and as Sciamma put it, “That’s why I do cinema. I do cinema to create, so that the film creates its own language … That’s my strongest emotions in cinema, I begin to speak the language of the film and I feel like I belong in here.”

I also spoke to Sciamma more recently here in L.A. for this week’s episode of our podcast “The Reel.” As she said, “I really wanted to embody, with the tools of cinema, what it’s like to fall in love. And to have the audience engaged in that process, with of course their mind, but also with their bodies … And so, it means believing a lot in cinema and believing also in the viewer as somebody active and engaged in the film.”

For the New York Times, Ren Jender wrote that the film “captures the essence of queer women’s desire in a way many other movies have tried and failed … Ms. Sciamma’s film has an exceptionally refreshing vision of both emotional and physical intimacy (which is not necessarily explicit).”

At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, “Sciamma has a great feel for structure, for emotional arcs, and for pinpoint-accurate catharses that nevertheless preserve the tantalizing enigma of her characters. The film is filled with moments of unforgettable intimacy and passion — there are at least three scenes where you could legitimately lean over to your companion and whisper, ‘That’s a portrait of a lady on fire’ — but intimacy and passion don’t always result in understanding or clarity; often, they deepen the beloved’s mystery. As such, the tone is sober, delicate, deliberate.”

For Vox, Emily VanDerWerff wrote, “What makes the French masterpiece ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ — one of my favorite movies ever made, and the perfect Valentine’s Day date movie — so good is that it’s both a great romance and a great love story. The two bleed into each other so skillfully that you’ll almost miss where the romance begins and the love story ends … And right alongside the blend of romance and love is a movie full of concerns about women’s place in the world, class barriers, and the ways a sisterhood among women can make the world more bearable for all welcomed into its embrace, right up until the world comes knocking down the door.”

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in a scene from “A Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in a scene from “A Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
(Neon)
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‘The Photograph’

Written and directed by Stella Meghie, “The Photograph” stars Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield with a supporting cast including Courtney B. Vance, Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan and Teyonah Paris. Stanfield plays a journalist researching a story that puts him in touch with a museum curator (Rae), and sparks fly. The movie also flashes back to the story of her mother (Adams) and an earlier romance.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘The Photograph’ is a movie of seductive, slow-savored pleasures: It’s about the joys of flirting over a glass of whiskey and making love during a hurricane while Al Green croons in the background. Meghie and her cinematographer, Mark Schwartzbard, bring a richly burnished warmth to the interiors and a free-flowing sense of movement to the exteriors, where Mae and Michael are often seen walking, in no particular hurry. They have time to riff and argue, to debate Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, and to contemplate the future.”

At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “There’s so little genuine, starry eyed you-had-me-at-hello romance in American movies today that when a new love story pops up, it’s hard not to root for it. That’s the case with ‘The Photograph,’ about parallel affairs of the heart. One is hindered by ambition and miscommunication while the other suffers from familiar fears of commitment. Movies like this tell us that falling in love is easy — cue the thunderbolt looks, passionate kisses and surging orchestration — but if it really were that simple there wouldn’t be much to tell, so also bring on the agonies, tempests and tears.”

For the Wrap, Candice Frederick wrote, “Though it’s an intoxicating blend of modern and vintage romance, ‘The Photograph,’ while flawed, is most intriguing when it peels back the layers between a mother and daughter who never really knew each other in life, but whose stories eventually intertwine in ways they could have never imagined. From its gorgeous settings to its bittersweet romance, Meghie has presented a story that emboldens us, no matter where we come from, to trust love.”

Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in the movie “The Photograph.”
Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in the movie “The Photograph.”
(Universal Pictures)

‘Downhill’

A remake of the Swedish movie “Force Majeure,” the new “Downhill” is pitched more as a straightforward comedy as directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote the adaptation with “Succession” showrunner Jesse Armstrong. In the film, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell are an American couple on a skiing vacation with their children in Austria, when a harrowing experience causes the cracks in their relationship to rupture.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Though ‘Force Majeure’ was a brilliantly calibrated comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness, ‘Downhill’ goes instead for solemn earnestness, undermining whatever subtlety of emotions it might have had, by staging things in obvious ways … Even at a brief 86 minutes, ‘Downhill’ is a misfire, unable to show either of its stars to their best advantage. Neither the actors nor the film can decide how to balance humor with drama and that is the heart of the problem.”

For The Times, Emily Zemler was on set in Austria and spoke to Faxon and Rash as well as Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell. On the challenges of remaking “Force Majeure,” Armstrong said, “The ambition is to have some new flavors, some different takes on the characters and explore some other ways of looking at that situation. It’s a particularly interesting and difficult process when you admire the original so much. There has to be a balance between changing a lot because you want to do something different and then loving it and going back to it.”

For the Chicago Tribune, Katie Walsh wrote, “The themes that are unspoken, gestured at and repressed in ‘Force Majeure’ are drawn out and made broad, obvious and slapstick in ‘Downhill,’ which spoon-feeds the lessons of the dark-ish comedy and cuts short the plot for the easiest-to-digest ending. Still, ‘Downhill’ retains the essential DNA of ‘Force Majeure,’ and therefore remains a strange and prickly piece of work.”

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Downhill,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Downhill,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)
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