This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
Months after Jordan Peele’s Us explored the haves and have nots duking it out in a surreal version of contemporary American society, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (A-) elevates class warfare to a whole new milieu via a dark comedic story of the extraordinary denizens of a blissed-out South Korea metropolis. The visionary director introduces viewers to a lower-class family of four rising to roles in a posh home tutoring, cooking for and driving the domicile’s privileged occupants. Is this jaw-dropping story a searing supernatural thriller or a ghost tale, dramatic chess game or upstairs/downstairs allegory? With shifting mixed-genre shenanigans, it’s all these and more. The film is fierce, frisky and funny as it makes salient points about the underbelly of society with inhabitants clawing for a way out of the funk of a bunker mentality. Favorite characters in this twisty treat are the resourceful sister played by Cho Yeo-jeong and the prideful and practical father portrayed by Song Kang-ho. The mansion at the center of the narrative is a fantastical fixture almost as labyrinthine as the pulpy plot points. Aside from some silly pratfalls and a lugubrious epilogue, expect consistent shock and awe from this inventive cinematic import.
For a movie about looming death, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (A) is a surprisingly joyous work. Her understated film is a near note-perfect glimpse at family dynamics as ordinary individuals endeavor to unravel the responsibilities of adulthood while confronting cultural dynamics in flux. Aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi, deftly played by Awkwafina, visits her Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother), beautifully embodied by Zhao Shuzhen, in Changchun, China for a poignant occasion. Although Nai Nai has a terminal illness, her family chooses to abide by a longstanding tradition to “carry the burden” for the matriarch and engages in a conspiracy to conceal the diagnosis from her. While the spry protagonist initially rejects the notion of deceiving her beloved relative, a series of heartfelt events bring insight and balance to a woman caught between worlds. Wang strikes a magnificent consistency of tone in telling this familial tale of the immigrant family’s return to the homeland, and she draws sincere and sentimental performances from her talented female leads. Although she also displays melancholy dramatic chops to great avail, Awkwafina’s humor is the tender translator at the film’s center. This cinematic family is one to remember and its story one of the delightful sleeper hits of the year.
Alfonso Cuarón’s family drama set in a middle class Mexico City neighborhood in the early 1970s, Roma (B), is an elegiac tribute to his family’s real housekeeper who was a steady presence as the family slowly splintered. Told with a sweeping tableaux of intimate and epic moments, photographed in black and white 65 millimeter glory and using rich natural sounds without an underscore to accompany several Spanish language dialects, the film is a roaring technical achievement. Tracking shots of bustling city life, a youth revolt and an ocean vista are among its most stunning. The burden of narrative is carried largely on the shoulders of first-time actress Yaritza Aparicio, and she is marvelously revelatory and relatable. A lot happens and also not very much. There’s a long stretch of cleaning house and talking to the dog. There are multiple sequences of the family children talking but not saying much. But then the protagonist is hoisted into a world of opulent cityscapes, profound joy and grief and even a moment or two of genuine action against the backdrop of rising political unrest and tension. Cuarón beautifully and fully recreates the squalor and splendor of his semi-autobiographical childhood memories with his camera floating through its settings and subjects as if caught up in a dream. The storytelling is spare and lacks dramatic characterizations and fully realized linkages to match the power of the visuals. See it in theatres if you can, but even on Netflix, prepare to behold the panoramas of gorgeous moviemaking.
Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony (Hebrew Title: Ismach Hatani) (B+) is an often jubilant dramedy about taking a stand, especially when oppression manifests with a seductive face. After a flimsy women’s prayer balcony in an aging Jerusalem synagogue topples and the temple’s senile rabbi is too infirm to oversee the renovation, the men of the tight-knit congregation turn to a charismatic young ultra-Orthodox leader, convincingly played by Abraham Aviv Alush, to guide the rebuild. His new ideas are actually old ones and involve setting the women of the church back in terms of their ability to think, pray and express themselves with any sense of modernity. Radiant actress Evelin Hagoel is the primary protagonist, magnificent in her decency and defiance. The entire ensemble of feisty women is remarkable, and it it is in their light and often humorous approach that a powerful parable comes to compelling life. A bit more muted than the similarly themed Spike Lee movie Chi-Raq, this Israeli film handles gender and religion with a deft touch and a splendid depiction of community. Ultimately it’s a celebration of enduring traditions and the power of progress in standing up for equality.
Note: The Women’s Balcony is the closing night presentation of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and is making appearances at many film festivals around the world this season.
It is uncertain if the story takes place in a theatre, in a crypt or in a metaphor as an arrogant writer/director gets his comeuppance from an unexpected auditioning actress in director Roman Polanski’s French language movie Venus in Fur (B+). A superb Mathieu Amalric is pretty clearly channeling the controversial auteur himself; and Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner is sensational as the titular seductress. The threadbare tinderbox of a plot could likely be described as a battle of the sexes as it dishes out delicious dialogue to each of its participants. A master of controlling tight quarters and portraying power play brinksmanship, the director challenges himself with a talky narrative nearly all set in one room; but he takes his characters on a visceral, intellectual and sometimes sexy journey that transports them completely. Clever lighting, pacing and wordplay render the proceedings more cagey than stagey, as if the characters from the Before Sunrise movies were having a mythological fever dream. It’s a late-career gem from one of film’s enduring provocateurs.
A single father/boxer and an aquatic animal trainer reveal physical and emotional wounds and forge an unlikely bond in Jacques Audiard’s French language film Rust & Bone (A-). Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard hit all the right notes in an unsentimental drama that could have veered to all sorts of conventional places. Cotillard in particular is riveting as a woman so complex that losing her legs in a killer whale attack is only a small element defining her character. It’s a rewarding and romantic film discovery.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexican coming-of-age film Y Tu Mamá También (A) features Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna who take Maribel Verdú on a road trip that leads to a variety of surprising discoveries. Frank in its sexual content, bawdy and bold in its humor and choices and nostalgic in its glimpses at a nation in transition, it’s an amazing journey and a rejuvenating cinematic experience.
Related link: Learn about the deluxe DVD edition of this film at Criterion Blues.
Michael Radford’s Italian import Il Postino: The Postman (B+) is a celebration of love and the human language, buoyed by poetry and romantic awakening. Chronicling a friendship between a simpleton delivery man and his mentor, the exiled poet Pablo Neruda, the film is a touching display of self-discovery as the postman learns to express the words in his head to the woman in his dreams.