For Day 5 of the festival I visited the 1760s, returned to South Korea, and then spend two hours in the company of two popes. I also wound up sat next to Mike Leigh for the third film which wasn’t distracting at all… I am pleased to report that he has excellent cinema etiquette; no whispers, phone light, or loud snacks from the master of British cinema.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
It is 1760 and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to a small island near France to paint the portrait of Lady Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so that it might be sent to her future husband in Milan. The only catch is that Héloïse does not approve of her upcoming nuptials so Marianne must act as a companion and paint her subject in secret.
Set over the span of just two weeks Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows the hesitant and secretive friendship between the two women as they evolve from subject and painter to something much closer. Amazingly for a period drama (any drama?) this is a film with nearly exclusive female cast that not only passes the Bechdel Test but spectacularly fails the Reverse Bechdel Test on all counts.
The absence of men allows the film to explore the muse and artist relationship with the fresh perspective of the female gaze. The film revels in female beauty without ever feeling exploitative, saving me some hand-wringing. It also allows for period details unique to female-only environments; eye opening aspects of day to day life are hinted at that I would never have even bothered to wonder about.
At its heart is a simple story; that of two women’s tentative steps towards one another. It is told through two stunning central performances and with shots of extreme beauty both in composition and subtext.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a gorgeous, romantic experience filled with beautiful imagery and aching longing.
Jeong Ga-young is the most exciting voice in South Korean cinema right now. Without the hype, or budget, of Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho she is carving a niche that sits alongside, and possibly in response to, the more intimate works of Hong Sang-soo. I was lucky to see her previous film Hit the Night at last year’s London Korean Film Festival and Heart acts a great companion piece and continuation of her body of work.
As in her previous film Jeong has placed herself at the center of this film. She plays a version of herself; a young director who has an affair with a married man and then plots to make a film inspired by their realtionship. The fourth wall is never directly broken but the Jeong’s character happily explains the motivation for making the film to a prospective actor within the film itself. Heart is not just a narrative film, but director Q&A and dramatised behind-the-scenes feature to boot.
Jeong is a filmmaker who is comfortable to play with the form. Heart plays with metaphor, genre tropes, and the basic expectations of a film. It is smart, witty, and sexy. This version of South Korean life is rarely captured on screen. Nothing is sanitised or glamorised and Jeong is not afraid to show herself in an unflattering light.
As someone who is a Hong Sang-soo fanatic, I am excited to finally hear the woman’s side to the story.
The Two Popes
If I were to be dismissive I could describe The Two Popes as nothing more than two men pontificating about the Catholic church for two hours. But I wouldn’t necessarily be wrong…
Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce play Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis respectively. The latter has travelled to the Vatican to hand in his resignation as Cardinal. Unfortunately the sitting Pope refuses to even discuss his resignation and instead they spend days debating issues of the church, exploring Francis’ controversial past, and drinking a healthy dose of red wine. The results of these talks are spoiled in the films own title and via a cursory Google of either of the lead characters.
Hopkins and Pryce brilliantly capture the character of their familiar roles. Both ably tackling numerous languages and ornate costumes as they portray two famous men of God. While the film is majority dialogue-driven the magnetism of the leads does not let the experience get stale. The more lively their conversation the more lively the camera gets as legendary director Fernando Meirelles goes to great pains to bring energy to endless scenes of two old men talking.
Overall I enjoyed The Two Popes and learned something in the bargain.That said, it isn’t a film I will ever watch again and will be impressed if I remember it next week. Let’s see how well it does when it lands on Netflix at the end of the year.