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.
Ever since I missed the opportunity to watch Rafiki at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I’ve been meaning to rectify that mistake. The good folks at Film Movement recently released Rafiki on DVD, giving me an opportunity to watch this beautiful film.
Directed by Wanuri Kahiu, Rafiki follows the story of two Kenyan girls, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). One day Kena spots the stunning Ziki. She stands out with her brightly colored long hair. The pair lock eyes and are instantly smitten. Kena and Ziki come from two different worlds albeit in the same community. Tensions between Kena’s divorced parents heighten when Kena and her mom find out that her dad’s new girlfriend is expecting. Ziki and Kena start dating and soon begin to fall in love. The risk of being caught comes with potentially severe consequences. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and looked down upon in the community. Not only that, Kena and Ziki’s fathers are political rivals and in a small town with an election on the horizon, rumors fly and the two must face the possibility of being found out.
Rafiki is a gorgeously haunting film that is equal parts heart-breaking and hopeful. The two stars Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva shine and I hope to see much more from them. The actors alternate between Swahili and English and Kena and Ziki mostly speak English to each other. The film has a strong sense of place and beautiful color palette. It’s vibrant and full of life. It’s simple yet bold.
The story lingers on Kena and Ziki’s relationship giving the audience an opportunity to spend a lot of time in their world. We develop an appreciation for their attraction to each other on a physical and emotional level which makes their separation all that more painful. Don’t worry. This film will not destroy you. It will fill you with hope for Kena and Ziki and for the future. Rafiki was banned in Kenya and soon became a darling on the festival circuit. We need to keep championing this film. Watch it. Love it. Share it far and wide.
Film Movement’s DVD includes a beautiful presentation of the film and includes subtitles. A bonus short film, Hudson directed by Shae Xu is included. That film tells the story of a divorced mom who struggles to introduce her teenage son to her new girlfriend.
Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) are heiresses living in Asunción, Paraguay. Over the course of their 30+ year relationship, they’ve enjoyed the comforts of wealth. But lately they’ve fallen on hard times and are forced to sell their antiques in order to pay the bills. Chiquita manages the finances while Chela mostly keeps to her daily rituals and her painting. It’s obvious that Chiquita dotes on Chela and Chela in return depends on Chiquita. Unfortunately when the bills stack up, Chiquita is convicted of fraud and sentenced to a month in jail leaving Chiquita mostly on her own (Chiquita hires a maid to look after Chela). While Chiquita is in jail, Chela begins to drive again and starts a side gig as a freelance taxi driver for the wealthy older women in her social circle. One of her new customers Angy (Ana Ivanova), is a gorgeous younger woman, provocative and sexy, who befriends Chela. Angy refers to Chela as “Poupee” and shares steamy tales of her sexual exploits. Their friendship awakens something in Chela that’s long been dormant.
The Heiresses is a quiet and spare lesbian drama. It will resonate with anyone who has settled into their ways and suddenly finds themselves having to reinvent their life. The protagonists are older women and the film doesn’t shy away from showing them as sexual and emotional beings. The story serves as a glimpse into the life of the Paraguayan bourgeoisie but also showcases some of the absurdity that comes with the lifestyles lived by the wealthy elite. For example, even though Chiquita going to jail for fraud and Chela must sell off some of her valuables to make ends meet, they still hire a maid they really can’t afford. On the flip side, Chela is incredibly proud and won’t accept handouts, even when Angy offers to give her a pair of sunglasses. We see Chela find some independence in her new job. She’s out and about, socializing and earning her own keep.
“I am interested in the everyday life that occurs outside these areas of power, even within the ruling class. And it was irrelevant to place The Heiresses at a specific moment in our political history because the feeling of living in a giant prison remains the same. And this is essentially a film about confinements.”
Director Marcelo Martinessi
The film was written, produced and directed by Marcelo Martinessi, a Paraguayan filmmaker, and is his full length feature debut. Martinessi was inspired to tell a story about income inequality in his country. In an interview Martinessi said, “Paraguay is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these women belong to that protected / privileged elite that has its roof and food secured. But the story unfolds as they begin to lose those assurances and cannot find a way to adapt to a new reality.” This is a female-centric story with a distinct absence of men. Martinessi said, “I grew up in a world shaped by women: mother, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, ladies in the neighborhood. I wanted my first feature to get into that female universe that interests me…” Would it have been a different story, a different movie had it been written and directed by a woman? Of course. However, Martinessi allows his female characters and his female actresses their time to shine and it never felt like it was weighted by a male gaze or POV.
The Heiresses was released by 1844 Entertainment and is available today on VOD (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, FandangoNow and Vudu).
“I don’t know how to love… If I could start all over, would I do the same thing?”
Ekaj (Jake Mestre) arrives in New York City after fleeing his emotionally abusive father. He’s a young beautiful gay teen looking for his place in the world. Unfortunately the cycle of abuse continues. He gravitates towards men who take advantage of his vulnerable state including his new boyfriend Johnny (Scooter LaForge), a narcissistic painter who exploits Ekaj for his own twisted pleasure. One day in the park, Ekaj meets Mecca (Badd Idea), a fellow hustler. In Mecca Ekaj finds a kindred spirit and the two quickly bond. Their friendship is the only truly good situation in their lives. Mecca suffers from AIDS and drug addiction. Ekaj escorts to make money which has the unfortunate affect of exposing him to more physical abuse. Can Ekaj find some semblance of stability and contentment?
“Men are very insecure. I hate men. I even hate myself.”
Ekaj is a modern day Midnight Cowboy. It’s raw, gritty, sensitive, organic and real. The camera gets right up into the faces of its subjects and we can’t help but be emotionally invested in Ekaj. The film was written, directed and produced by Cati Gonzalez and features an all-male cast. This makes for an interesting gender dynamic having a female POV on the lives of men. The two leads are of Puerto Rican descent and I love that this is an indie film by a female filmmaker with queer Latino characters. The scenes between Jake Mestre and Badd Idea are really the heart of the film. Their tender friendship is beautiful to see even in the midst of their harrowing struggles. Ekaj serves a window into the world of a marginalized community and encourages the viewer to find some empathy within themselves.
Queering the Script is a new documentary written and directed by Gabrielle Zilkha that explores the effect television has on queer women and vice versa. This is a community that has long been craving representation on screen. From the early days of the internet, queer women have been flocking to message boards to discuss subtext. Online they shared ideas and stories and imagined their favorite TV characters in romantic relationships that otherwise wouldn’t have happened on screen. As the internet evolved and queer female characters became more prevalent on TV, the community got bigger, stronger and more outspoken. The fandom became a force to be reckoned with. This community channeled their energy into all sorts of creative outlets including cosplay, fan art, fan fiction, etc. They traveled to festivals and conventions where they were able to meet their favorite celebrities and bond (and fall in love!) with other queer women. This gave birth to Clexacon, the largest fandom event for LGBTQ+ women and allies.
One of the biggest takeaways from Queering the Script is how queer women have been a driving force in entertainment. They have been outspoken about visibility and representation and this has had a direct effect on storylines and relationships between characters. This has lead to more queer characters on screen. However, there has been an adverse affect of the increase in queer female characters in television. Between 2015 and 2017, over 60 of these characters were killed off. Queer characters are not often the lead protagonists thus easier to kill off and this trend, referred to by the community as Bury Your Gays, had a devastating effect.
Various experts, mostly queer female journalists from a variety of outlets but also fans and TV writers, are interviewed in the documentary. Shows discussed include:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Jane the Virgin
The L Word
One Day at a Time
Orange is the New Black
Person of Interest
Xena: Warrior Princess
Queering the Script is an enlightening documentary that shines a much needed spotlight on queer representation. It tackles all sorts of subjects and doesn’t shy away from dealing with hot button issues like body image and racial diversity.
Queering the Script is currently part of Outfest 2019.