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TIFF 2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Two Varsity writers are mesmerized by Céline Sciamma’s stunning feature film

TIFF 2019: <em>Portrait of a Lady on Fire</em>

Right before the screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire began, director Céline Sciamma did two things. First, she commended the décor of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, which has vines and bushels of fake shrubbery completely covering its ceiling, and second, she expressed her nerves at the buzz her movie had been generating. Leaning casually against the podium, she emphasized the relationship between such a grand, ornate theatre and her movie — a movie which was relatively small and didn’t have any big actors, though it may very well produce them  — and commented on the fact that though this discrepancy was incredibly humbling, it was also very stressful.

Her stress, however, proved to be unfounded, as once the screen faded to black and the final credits rolled, everyone in the multi-tiered balconies shot up to give Sciamma and her cast a roaring ovation. Two hours of movie played in between her first appearance on stage and her second. Two hours of a movie where the delicate strings that connect lovers and friends are frayed and pulled at, though never completely severed.

The film begins with a brush stroke: a thick brush swipes dark paint on a canvas and we find ourselves observing a group of young girls being instructed in portraiture by a dark-haired woman, posed rigidly but confidently, in the middle of their circle. While she poses, she calls out orders, and we find out that she is not a mere model with timely anatomical advice, she is a painter herself. As for the painting that is cast aside behind her, well, that one is called “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” And so our journey begins, jumping back a couple of years in time to the murky waters between France and Italy, to the end of the eighteenth century.

For Héloise, Marianne is an opportunity for freedom: a companion with whom her mother would finally allow her to leave the house. It takes Marianne a little bit longer to see Héloise in the same light, but before long, Marianne notes freedom in her nature: someone who doesn’t hold her tongue and who doesn’t embellish the truth. Both women have imprisonment and freedom that the other doesn’t, and so they fit together like puzzle pieces, making up for what the other lacks.

Sciamma’s film is a dissertation on what binds us to societal roles and what binds us to ourselves, questioning whether we can ever find a happy grey area between the two — if we can join the two otherwise separate circles into a Venn diagram. Imprisoned people believe they are free until they get a taste of what freedom actually feels like, and this is the case for Marianna and Héloise.

As they begin to discover and explore their newfound freedoms, they begin a romantic relationship, one that has a looming expiration date which promises a startlingly short lifespan. But the two women don’t try to evade their ending; they instead feel confident that they’ve established a bond strong enough for memory alone to sustain it once they’ve separated.

From the very beginning, Sciamma subverts expectations. Where there should be melodrama there is humour; where there should be pain there is laughter. But as such, where there should be love there is disappointment. These subversions begin as fun moments — instead of being upset at a big reveal, the characters begin to banter about the nature of art and art criticism — but eventually descend into moments of pain born out of helplessness.

However, this was the case for women in this time period. After all, Sciamma’s film is as much about women as it is about art or romance or memory. There are only five characters with substantial speaking roles, and all of them are women. Women of different social statuses and ones navigating different stages of life. These experiences — grief, motherhood, business, homosexual love — are written and filmed in a lens unique to women. Portrait of a Lady on Fire focuses on all types of relationships between women: platonic, romantic, and subservient.

There is a new canon of contemporary gay movies shaping up out of the past decade and a half, movies focusing on a uniquely individual facet of gay love, through race, gender, religion, and period in time. Stylistically, Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, and God’s Own Country — not that being considered part of this group is a negative thing. Unlike last year’s The Favourite, it is gentle in its delivery, with thoughtful dialogue, gorgeous landscapes, and limited music.

You don’t come out this movie feeling that you’ve just witnessed one of the greatest cinematic love stories of this century. Instead you come out focused on the women and their individual journeys. The audience focuses on how they interact with one another when not pressured by the judgemental gaze of others, and how they behave when they have moments of absolute freedom, though few and sparse.

Céline Sciamma makes a movie where she coils women’s freedoms and imprisonments so that, if you are not paying enough attention, it seems like both are parts of the same vine. She doesn’t explicitly outline what freedom and imprisonment are for her characters, and as such we leave the theatre feeling that not only that we must ponder the partition ourselves, but that the characters are continuing on with their lives, mulling over the same dilemma that we are.

That is to say, Sciamma welcomes the audience as she does her characters. She unites everyone no matter their point in life, or what they had to do to get there, so that we all meet at the same point in the end. It isn’t a moment of clarity, but rather, one of unity.

Why TIFF matters

At their core, film festivals are a platform for small, independent film makers

Why TIFF matters

There are approximately 3,000 film festivals every year, with the most renowned being the Sundance, Cannes, Berlinale, Hong Kong International Film Festivals, and of course, our very own Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Every September, the City of Toronto hosts a 10-day event — with a plethora of actors, directors, and writers coming to the festival to discuss their art. Alongside the other international festivals, TIFF provides a platform for the films that do not fulfil the formulaic patterns of American studios like Hollywood.

Over the last 10 years, the cost of producing and promoting films has skyrocketed — meaning that independent creators are reliant on film festivals to exhibit and promote their work.

Film festivals enable artists to share their art without the monetary constraints. However, it is ironic that festivals, by upholding their curatorial responsibilities toward arts and culture, have evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry.

The relationship between large film companies and film festivals is often finely balanced between complementary and uneasy. This is because the lifeline of the festivals is the celebrities who star in the films. The celebrities attract media coverage, which in turn results in sponsors and funding.

This means that the already unstable relationship between art and business — which defines the whole film industry — is particularly strained at film festivals.

Unlike blockbusters — where their success is controlled by funding and release strategies — indie films are largely dependent on the reactions of festival directors, the response of the audience, and how much sleep critics can grab in between the midnight and 8:00 am screenings.

Living in Toronto, we have the privilege of an international film festival right on our doorstep. The festival even occurs before the semester is in full swing, so we truly have an abundance of time to amble along King Street West and enjoy the culture that is the driving force behind one of the world’s leading film festivals.

Breaking through barriers

The Breakthrough Film Festival showcases films made by women, for everyone

Breaking through barriers

Why do female filmmakers make up only nine per cent of directors in 2015’s 250 highest grossing films? Because the film world is “comprised of 91 per cent men,” quips Maya Annik from The Gaze podcast. Breakthroughs Film Festival, Canada’s only festival dedicated to showcasing short films by new-generation female filmmakers, seeks to address this disparity. Its fifth annual festival, which ran June 10–11 at the Royal Cinema on College Street, featured 17 films from nine countries, including Canada.

“We’re trying to get far more of a balance compared to what has already existed,” says Gabor Pertic, Breakthroughs’ executive director and longtime programmer for TIFF and Hot Docs. “And it’s not only about saying, ‘hey everyone, here are a bunch of young female filmmakers and here are their films,’ but, ‘here is the world, this is what the world’s stories are, this is what these young emerging talents are able to showcase, and we can all benefit from that.’”

The first night of the festival started with the premiere of Stalingrado, a drama set in the beautiful countryside of northwestern Spain. Director Anyora Sanchez brings together an unlikely cast of characters — a rugged Spanish shepherd, an elegant Russian woman with whom he is in love, and his mother — to explore, with tender humour and sincerity, the challenges of a relationship that threatens cultural norms.

Emilie Mannering’s Star takes an honest look at Canadian culture’s pervasive hypermasculinity through the eyes of teenage boys living in Montreal. The film opens with a selfie video using Snapchat or Vine, and its shakiness draws the audience right into the heart of their hectic world. Here, they watch street fights online, write rap music, and struggle to find ways to connect with their peers or stand up for their beliefs. It’s a captivating portrait, right up to its haunting end.  

Childhood visits to Pakistan inspired Canadian filmmaker and photographer Zinnia Naqvi to return to her family’s roots and make a film out of a pre-existing photography project. Seaview is a visually striking exploration of identity, cultural differences, and artistic integrity.  

2016 Breakthroughs Jury Prize winner Edmond ended the evening on a reflective note. The animated short, written and directed by Nina Gantz, follows a young man embarking on a retrospective journey at a critical point in his life. The childlike spirit evoked by puppetry contrasts the bizarre, often troubling behaviours Edmond relives as he ponders his current desires. Gantz’s creative scene transitions lend the work a surreal tone.

Saturday night featured two other award-winners: Sunday Lunch, by French filmmaker Céline Devaux, won the Audience Choice Award for its portrayal of “a lunchtime gathering with family, complete with generational dysfunction and plenty of wine,” while Ryerson film studies graduate Jasmin Mozaffari received Jury’s Honourable Mention for Wave, which follows a man who has experienced a great loss and finds himself “struggling with his personal demons and anguish while having to maintain responsibilities he may not be ready to take on.”

The quality of Breakthroughs’ films shows that the lack of female representation in the film industry is not due to a lack of talent. On having a film festival devoted to women filmmakers, Zinnia Naqvi says, “It’s nice to have this platform; to be together and have that community.”