Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Cadmium Orange Is the New Black

You fall in love with an artist, you’re gonna get burned. Photo courtesy of Pyramide Films

Every year Hollywood imports a new French lesbian movie. I usually run in the opposite direction because of all the whispering-in-bed scenes and pained longing you can’t feel because you’re too busy reading novel-length subtitles. And I mean, if no one’s going to eat jizz off a peach, why did I sit through all that?

However…wow. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is close to perfection.

You do have to get past the too-obvious title (the French version is more nuanced about the Henry James reference), and there will be times when someone in the throes of passion will say (whisper) lines like “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” It’s a French movie, they can’t help themselves.

But you’ll be rewarded with an exquisitely composed, beautifully shot, subtly acted film where nothing is wasted and emotions are allowed to resonate in stillness, unlike Hollywood films that push us into every feel with music cues and histrionics. 

The plot is simple, and focusing on it is hard at first because you’re drooling over all the props. The piano with the colors reversed on the keys – the big ones are ebony and the little ones are ivory – is to die for, even though it might confuse pianists other than Stevie Wonder. And though each of the four women who occupy the perfectly aged stone villa only have one dress, you never get tired of looking at those four dresses. 

Things kick off with a painter who looks exactly like Emma Watson arriving at the remote sea-swept villa to paint a betrothal portrait of a young woman we learn is an impossible subject. The previous painter was driven to wipe the woman’s entire head off his attempt and run screaming, so we’re primed for her reveal, and it is teased out in a series of wonderfully clever bits of staging.

The movie is full of brilliant narrative details like this, and they aren’t all pretty either. Did you know that 18thCentury abortions entailed playing Red Rover Red Rover on a beach, then drinking weed tea while hanging from the ceiling, and finally having a homemade exfoliate mask spread inside your hoohah while you hold a baby’s hand? Don’t get any ideas, Alabama.

Men appear only in the first five and last five minutes of the film, so we don’t know how the pregnancy could have happened, but it’s not one of the lesbians, so don’t worry, their relationship doesn’t get messy in that way. Haha.

There’s a lot of brush-stroking on canvas close-ups, which we all get mesmerized by, admit it, and lots of scenes set in the rustic kitchen so that the persimmons and blocks of chevre can have their moment in the chiaroscuro.

There are plenty movies that sound really good when described and turn out to be awful when they get up on screen. And there are movies that can sound like an eye-roller when described but prove to be amazing. That kind of save is all about smart choices and superb effort by everyone involved, none more so than the director.

So my hat is off to director – and also screenwriter, damn girl! – Celine Sciamma. She’s the real lady on fire here.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in limited release on December 6.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #portraitofaladyonfire #noff2019 

New Orleans Film Festival: Jojo Rabbit: Why can’t our fascist leader be this much fun?

“Don’t tell Wes Anderson what we’ve done to Moonrise Kingdom.” Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

At my showing of Jojo Rabbit, the director Taika Waititi appeared on screen before the movie started to tell us his mother is Jewish and that his film is not intended to address hate as much as promote peace. It felt strange, like if Todd Phillips appeared before his Joker movie to let us know he had an OCD cousin and supported background checks.

Obviously Netflix PR felt Waititi had to defend his new film from the criticism that it plays too funny and loose with Nazism. But come on, from Charlie Chaplin to Donald Duck to Mel Brooks, Adolph Hitler and his cohorts have been spoofed plenty, and Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler as a goofy imaginary friend to a 10-year-old boy may differ in tone but not in intent.

The device is fitting with one of the many talents this director has, in this case his ability to see and understand events from the view of an adolescent protagonist. Case in point: we’ve all sat through at least one of those get-off-my-lawn-codger-comes-to-accept-troubled-kid movies. The damn things win Oscars all the time, no matter how tone deaf they are. Waititi’s codger-kid movie was Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but the film’s perspective and sense of humor came from the boy, not the codger, and the result was 100 times more charming and relatable than any Million-Dollar Torino ever was.

In Jojo Rabbit, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a timid boy living in Berlin toward the end of WWII, and his need to fit in makes him vulnerable to Aryan propaganda, which is getting more and more hyperbolic as the Nazis are losing their war. Jojo conjures his version of Hitler as a way to buck up his confidence and fealty during mandatory Nazi youth training. 

This is fanaticism presented from inside the mind of a kid, an idea that could get mired in over-serious dissection. But that’s just not this director. He makes his points with farce, so at first he focuses on the immature and silly aspects of Jojo’s Hitler. But as Jojo starts to see clearer, his Hitler gets testier, less funny and downright threatening.

What opens Jojo’s eyes, what changes his perspective and his Hitler, are the steady influence of his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson with a beautiful balance of steely and loving, and the Jewish girl, Elsa, she’s hiding in the attic, whom Jojo discovers when he’s confined to home after a training injury scars his face and gives him a limp.

Jojo wants the girl to tell him everything about Jews so he can write a book called Yoohoo Jew, intended to educate his fellow Germans about the race. The ‘facts’ he wants her to substantiate are of course all the outrageous anti-Semitic nonsense he’s been fed, and here is the one place I can understand some complaints, as Waititi wallows in humorous depictions of horns and tails and rabbis using foreskins as earplugs. It’s logical that adolescent Jojo would be so fascinated, but the jokes go on longer than they need to.

As the film moves along, Waititi starts folding in more sweet moments and bitter realities, and if you’re not a fan of his style the whole thing could feel curdled. He’s making the point that of course Nazism wasn’t and isn’t funny, but relentlessly depressing depictions of it are not the only way to address it and eventually squelch it.

Love, understanding, and maturity get Jojo past his blind fanaticism. These all take time, and while this process happens to those for whom it needs to happen, the rest of us don’t have to live in the darkness they try to create.

Jojo Rabbit opens nationally on October 18.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #jojorabbit #noff2019 #oscarbait

New Orleans Film Festival: Marriage Story: Black Widow and Kylo Ren battle without special effects

These are not the droids you’re looking for. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Noah Baumbach movies have always felt like filmed versions of HuffPost Life & Style articles: ’35 Funny Tweets About Having a Roommate’; ‘The 1 Thing Unfaithful People Have in Common’; ‘So THAT’S the Difference Between Orange and White Cheddar Cheese’. We get a chuckle, learn something we’ll forget a second later, and nod our heads to things we already know are true but for some reason like to have written out for us.

What’s made Baumbach’s scripts worth bothering to shoot is his love of actors, a commendable thing considering this Marvel Universe in which we live. Miming fisticuffs with an alien against a green-screen is nothing compared to reeling off a 5-minute monologue on some basic slice-of-life moment and making it riveting, and in Marriage Story, Baumbach’s got his most riveting pair yet in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. 

ScarJo is an actress named Nicole who wants a divorce from Adam’s Charlie. We assume it’s because he makes her act in his terrible BAM-y stage plays, where she has to climb all over the other actors while her huge projected mug yells at the audience. But since this kind of theater isn’t legally recognized as abuse (yet), Nicole has to go a different route.

Being woke Brooklynite parents, they think they can keep their split ‘gentle’. But then Nicole hires Laura Dern as her lawyer. ScarJo, did you not watch Big Little Lies? Renata Klein does not do gentle. So then Charlie dumps kindly old Alan Alda for a Mafioso lawyer played by who else but Ray Liotta, fresh off his Chantix infomercials and looking like he should have kept smoking.

Proceedings of course get ugly (‘The 5 Things Every Couple Who Hate Each Other Should Know’), in both subtle and overt ways, and Johansson actresses like never before. But let’s discuss Adam Driver.

Does anyone ever stop and think, like I do, what a dismal future American film acting will have once the likes of DeNiro and Pacino and Hoffman and Streep retire? And that Adam Driver is the extremely rare actor of his generation with the shoulders to carry a mantle that big? From the moment he walked out in Girls and made everyone and everything else in the show feel like a Twitter exchange to his single-handedly turning the Star Wars franchise into the grand opera it always wanted to be, this guy has shown an uncanny ability to slap material around until it’s his bitch. Though it purports to present things with an even hand, Marriage Story continually corners Charlie into the villain role (a rousing, biting lecture by Dern during the custody battle makes this obvious), yet Driver refuses to stay in that corner, sneaking out when he can and bursting out when he must. 

Like kids watching parents fight, the movie tries to distract us with comedy, but there’s no getting around that Marriage Story is the opposite of escapist fare. Johansson and Driver’s portrayal of a couple trying and failing to keep their anger and love from nuclear melt-down is so good that it leaves anyone who can relate to the situation a bit traumatized. I saw more than a few dazed faces leaving my theater, and no doubt heading to the nearest bar.

Baumbach knows he’s got something bigger this time than his previous films, that this one will play beyond the Upper West Side, that Oscar may finally find a Noah Baumbach film sexy enough for recognition. But just in case, he hedges his bet by making the crux of the couple’s animosity a stand-off between New York’s artistic snobbery (Charlie, recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant) and LA’s ‘broader’ creative sensibilities (Nicole, who made her name by exposing her boobs in a teen flick). This and the use of the son to wring emotion during crucial moments is a little convenient, but no more so than classics like Kramer vs Kramer. 

Baumbach devotees will of course love this, though they may secretly wish there was a little more Frances Ha-ha and a little less yelling. But for those who weren’t ever blown away by his films, he’s found excellent actors to convert us. 

Marriage Story opens nationally on November 6.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #marriagestory #noff2019 #oscarnoms #scarlettjohansson #adamdriver #bestactor