It’s been a long time since Marianne (Noémie Merlant) saw her own painting entitled Portrait of a Lady on Fire. When one of her art students brings out the portrait it stirs memories of its subject. Years ago, Marianne was hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to draw a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting was to be part of her dowry when she married a wealthy gentleman from Milan. But there’s a catch. Héloïse can’t know she’s being painted. La Comtesse comes up with a ruse to hire Marianne to be Héloïse’s walking companion. As the two take sojourns Marianne studies Héloïse features and even has the house servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) pose as Héloïse. As the two bond its clear to Marianne that she is falling in love with the difficult and tortured Héloïse. Both are destined for other things and must make the most of those precious days together.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is a stunningly gorgeous and mesmerizing film. It’s pure poetry. The way the camera frames Marianne and Héloïse makes it look like we are in a living breathing work of art. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel bring an intensity that is simply awe inspiring. Director and writer Céline Sciamma offers up a lesbian love story that feels honest and true. The film is so intimate that it made me uncomfortable and almost vulnerable in a way that was exhilarating. There are no real male characters. This is a world of women and women only. The sex scenes are highly subversive and real. It’s really unlike any romantic period piece I’ve ever seen.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.
Norwegian filmmaker Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s latest film Disco is a heady exploration of the danger of Christian cults and what it means to lose yourself. Teenage Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen) is a champion dancer, a singer and one of the faces of her stepfather Per’s congregation Freedom. All is not right in her household. Per is controlling, her mother harbors a dark secret about the abuse Mirjam suffered years ago by her biological father and Mirjam is now collapsing during her competitions. There’s a lot of pressure on Mirjam to be perfect from her performances, competitions, church life and as a model young woman. After attempting suicide, she looks for answers by way of other Christian outlets. First she spends time with her uncle, a televangelist who feigns curing cancer and homosexuality through elaborate prayers. Then she seeks an even more radical alternative by attending a youth camp run by a family friend (Andrea Bræin Hovig). In searching for answers Mirjam loses her personal freedom and becomes a shell of her former self. Will she find her voice again?
Disco offers an interesting conceit but the story never quite gels. It felt aimless and without purpose. There are many tightly framed shots which at first I found off-putting but they really transport the audience into Mirjam’s world. We’re up, close and personal with her and this creates a sort of bond between viewer and protagonist. Josefine Frida Pettersen is an internet celebrity and the star of the hit TV show Skam. She’s absolutely stunning and its clear that the camera loves her. Petterson’s performance is reserved and while we don’t necessarily tap into her character’s personal pain we do feel empathy for her situation.
While I didn’t grow up in a Christian cult I was raised in a very religious and oppressive environment and much of what was shown I found highly triggering. It’s important to show Mirjam’s trauma and the lengths these groups will go to strip their followers of their identities in order to gain their obedience. Some of the final scenes are quite shocking. The ending will frustrate many viewers. It’s a risky move on the filmmakers part but realistic within the scope of the story.
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.
Set in the bucolic countryside of Germany, Pelican Blood tells the story of Wiebke, an adoptive mother and talented horse trainer. It’s at her horse camp there that she trains horses and riders for the German mounted police. Wiebke isn’t afraid of a challenge and is determined that Top Gun, her most problematic horse, graduates to the academy even when others doubt her.
Wiebke is also getting ready to become a mother again. With her adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo), they travel to Belgium to adopt a second child, an orphan named Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Everything seems to be fine until Raya start exhibiting some increasingly strange and frightening behaviors. Wiebke learns that Raya has reactive attachment disorder and feels very little to no fear or empathy. As Raya’s behaviors start to spiral out of control, putting the family in grave danger, Wiebke tries everything she possibly can to rehabilitate Raya. This puts a strain on her relationship with her daughter Nicolina and her love interest Benedikt (Murathan Muslu) one of Wiebke’s trainees. As Wiebke looks for a solution, will she have to sacrifice her work and a chance at happiness to save Raya?
“When you take a journey you can come back changed.”
Directed by Katrin Gebbe, Pelican Blood is an understated and terrifying movie. It’s frightening to not only see the effects of Raya’s psychosis but the lengths that Wiebke will go to help Raya. The term “pelican blood” refers to the sacrifice of motherhood which for Wiebke comes at a greater cost having chosen to be Raya’s mother. At the beginning of the film we learn of the legend where a pelican mother pierces her breast and feeds her dead chicks her own blood to bring them back to life.
The third act takes a strange turn which brings the conflict to its resolution. It’s not something I expected but I don’t know how else the story could have been resolved. I was particularly intrigued by how Wiebke’s scar becomes its own character in the movie. It’s very prominent on her face, changes in appearance and then disappears. We never learn exactly where she got it from but it’s assumed that it was from an encounter with an unruly horse. There are plenty of tender moments between Wiebke and Nicolina and also her sweet romance with Benedikt. These help balance out the tension with Raya.
I really hope Pelican Blood gets distributed in the US. It’s a fine film, very inventive in its storytelling and its solutions, offers fine performances and is enjoyable as both a dark family drama and a pseudo-horror flick.
Pelican Blood had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.
Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) has just celebrated the success of her latest dance production but something isn’t right. She’s been in remission from lung cancer since last Christmas. But now she’s suffering from debilitating headaches and her eyesight has gotten so bad she can no longer read. When she visits the doctor and gets an MRI, she’s given terrible news. Her cancer is back in the form of a large tumor in her brain. It’s treatable but incurable and she will soon die of the disease.
At first she keeps this a secret with her distant and workaholic husband Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård). The news draws them together while at the same time the problems they’ve endured throughout their 20 year union come bubbling up to the surface. Anja struggles with how to tell her blended family of children, her dad and her friends. We follow her and Tomas as Anja puts into place her plans for her final treatments and her final days with those she loves most. Through it all she must hold on to a glimmer of hope that everything will be okay.
Directed by Maria Sødahl and based on a true story, Hope is a heart-wrenching film that will leave you emotionally devastated. We’re seated right next to Anja on her roller coaster ride of emotions. We feel her fear, her pain and her paranoia. End-of-life situations are complicated and messy. I love that Sødahl’s film doesn’t tie up everything neatly into a big bow. Instead she allows the viewer to see the bad and the good and every shade in between. Hovig is more than capable to take us on her character’s journey and delivers a breathtaking performance. Skarsgård’s solemn delivery pairs beautifully with Hovig’s. It’s through his tender approach and his support of Anja that we have some emotional foundation.
The story is told over Christmas and New Year’s when the holidays delay access to specialists and puts pressure on Anja to make the season a happy one for her children. I thought the time frame to be an ingenious touch which elevated the stakes in Anja’s story. Hope is a film you may want to avoid and I almost did myself. But I’m so glad I gave over 2 hours of my life so a beautiful film could break my heart.
Hope had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.
Update: Hope will have a virtual theatrical release on April 16th, 2021.
The ocean depths hold many secrets. Marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) has devoted her young career to studying the patterns of ocean life in an effort to take the mystery out of the sea. Little does she know that a sea creature awaits her, beyond the scope of anything she has ever studied or could ever know.
Siobhán joins a fishing trawler manned by married couple Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott). Fisherman are incredibly superstitious and Siobhán’s red hair is a sign that they’re in for some bad luck. Also on the vessel are a trio of fisherman Sudi (Eli Bouakaze), Johnny (Jack Hickey) and Ciara (Olwen Fouere) as well as fellow scientist Omid (Ardalan Esmaili). Siobhán is quiet, serious and anti-social and the spirited Johnny starts to bring her out of her shell. The bad luck rears its ugly head when a luminous creature that spews a blue slime, latches its tentacles onto the boat. Siobhán, the only one on board equipped for scuba diving, meets the creature face to face. The shipmates soon learn that the creature has wiped out the crew of another trawler and they’re next. One by one the creature exposes its blue slime into open wounds, laying its eggs that explode out of its victims. Will the crew be able to escape in time before the creature infects them all?
Sea Fever feels both classic and brand new. It’s in the same vein of those classic sci-fi thrillers where the creature serves a vessel to help tell a very human story. Writer and director Neasa Hardiman offers a slick and emotionally devastating story. There are so many themes that come bubbling up to the surface. Man versus nature, fear of the unknown, the importance of social bonds, and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.
There are no stereotypes. Everyone is their own character, true to themselves and not a pawn for the sake of the story. Siobhán is a fascinating protagonist and Hermione Corfield does her justice. Studious, smart and emotionally distant, we see her grow over time as she becomes the film’s hero. It’s great to see what a woman director/writer can do with a science fiction story featuring a strong female lead. Sea Fever had me enthralled. I usually don’t go for this genre but I’m glad I took a chance on this film. It’s thrilling in a quiet way. It’s not splashy, doesn’t depend on elaborate action sequences or fancy special effects (although the special effects it does have are pretty slick). Instead it latches on to its characters and won’t let go.
Sea Fever had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.