Portrait of a Lady on Fire

A delicate balance of gestures and glances, staring, and finding each other. A removal of layers, with intricate observations of lovers whipped up in unexpected love, romancing each other in a mixture of fire and water, with the flames that ignite and the ocean that pacifies. a few days to get to know each other, while the mother is away, lends itself to the opening of Heloise, who at the start of the movie is trapped in a cold and forbidding existence, completely stifled by the suicide of her sister and a life she hasn’t chosen, a life that does nothing to lift her out of her current circumstance.

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The premise is simple: Heloise’s mom wants a portrait painted of her, and she’s unable to comply: to sit still and be read and drawn by a stranger. she’s closed herself off. the quietness of the movie is only splashed with sounds of waves and the crackling of fire. only through the dance of love between Heloise and Marianne do we get a glimpse of sound as their romance shatters the pristinely quiet existence of manners.

Marianne is held with the task of painting someone who doesn’t want to be painted, so she is forced to steal moments and gestures here and there, finding a way to paint her raw, blossoming love onto the canvas. her painting improves as the two become more acquainted, peeling away their layers and, in a very french way, detailing their observations to each other. a jousting of who’s in charge, a battle of who’s observing who.

The two are ultimately faced with the impending end of their affair. the mother is to return and, with her, the return of their respective lives. Heloise to go back to her husband she didn’t ask for, Marianne back to her loneliness, and we are privy to private, crushing moments of the two cherishing each other longingly as what they will become: future memories. with the story of Eurydice presented in an almost literal fashion, we can see the end nearer and nearer and with it our hearts start to break. they’ve chosen to remember each other in the poetic sense, with paintings guiding their memories to these blissful days with each other. it’s a movie in the heart-wrenching vein of The Age of Innocence, one that is just as much about the longing for something more as it is about the remembrance of something beautiful.

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“Together in the Dark: What We Miss About Going to the Movies” by Walter Murch

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Cinema is a mass medium. And since we film-makers want to get as many people as possible to see our films, we try to find a common denominator. But we also want each person in the audience to feel the film is whispering things only they know about. We want to achieve a paradoxical mass-intimacy.

There are four key ways in which film attempts this – and manages it better than any other art form. Three of them occur irrespective of whether we are watching a film on an iPad or in an Imax. But the fourth – and possibly most crucial – is singular to seeing a film in a cinema.

It’s important to appreciate them all in order to know what we have lost while cinemas are shut. And also what the medium must rely on if its future lies off the big screen.

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1. A life held in perfect balance

When a film connects, it speaks to the head, the heart and the gut. Each of these ways of thinking – intellectual, emotional and instinctual – is directly addressed, then woven together and rendered mutually coherent. We are served something we all long for but rarely experience: our lives seeming to be in miraculous balance.

Cinema is especially powerful because it can communicate directly with those pre-linguistic intelligences that lie within us. The question and the responsibility for film-makers is how to harness that power for the good, because it can easily be misused. For at its best, film could supply the braided coherence ordinary life does not.

Such films would fulfill a unique social, almost spiritual, function, helping people to resolve contradictions within themselves, and then to align with each other in a healthy society.

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2. Deep secrets finally shared

Audiences are often surprised by a film’s apparent intimacy with their own inner secrets. This is the result of a film-maker judiciously deciding what to put in and what to leave out. If a film shows too much, the audience just has to sit there and take it, but they won’t feel a personal, emotional bond with the story or the characters. But if certain things are left incomplete, to just the right degree, everyone will use their own particular imagination to turn the partial into the complete.

That is why people often differ in their sense what is a film has shown them. They may think they have seen the whole, but they are unaware some of the crucial elements have come from within. So in a sense they are seeing themselves in the story. As John Huston said: “The real projectors are the eyes and ears of the audience.”

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3. Authorised voyeurism

As we watch a film, we are allowed to gaze deeply into the eyes of beautiful, ugly, powerful, scary, interesting people. We invade their space. In daily life, such close access is not often available. The people on screen, however, seem not to know that we are watching them, which makes it even more intoxicating. All it would take would be for them to shift their eyes a few degrees, look into the lens, and we would be found out. But until then, we can watch with fascination as thoughts and emotions pass like shadows, storms, and beams of sunlight across their faces.

This proximity to beauty and power, mediated through eye contact, goes far back into our primate past. Cinema is the one art form that has found a way, through creative use of the close-up, to tap deeply into the wellsprings of this primitive and almost irresistible force of nature.

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4. The discomfort of strangers

For the past two months, we have watched films only at home. But a film’s agency also depends on it being seen in a cinema at an appointed time, in the dark, in the presence of strangers also drawn to this moment.

There is also the fact that when we leave our houses, at some expense (babysitters, popcorn), a little discomfort (parking, public transport), and risk (strangers! Infection!) and we gather in a cinema at a specific time, we are – by those very actions of expense, displacement, constraint, and risk – primed to see the film in a more expanded way than when we summon it on a streaming service.

Technically, the quality of a film at home can now equal, or exceed, the quality at a multiplex. But what at-home viewing can never do is provide a communal experience to which we happily submit. In the best circumstances, that experience can paradoxically expand our consciousness and awareness of our commonality, sharpening our senses in the mass intimacy of the darkened theatre.

And when we are in the dark, with many other people, we are especially alert to tiny signals from the audience that will trigger group laughter, screams, or tears. At home, alone, or with a few others, these signals are reduced proportionally. The larger the audience, the more likely it is that someone will get the joke early, and that first laugh will trigger everyone else. At the end of a live performance, there is a moment when the audience is ready to applaud, but uncertain of exactly the right moment. But as soon as someone claps, everyone will follow along.

Humans have been assembling in the dark, listening to stories, since the invention of language. It is indelibly part of who we are and how we bond with each other. The theatrical experience is a recreation of this primeval gathering, the flames of the campfire replaced by shifting images that are telling the story itself.

After the current hurricane has blown through the world, and we begin to pick up the scattered pieces, will cinema exhibition return to the way it was? Probably not in every detail – the universal lockdown has been an unprecedented shock. But I believe the deep human need to leave the isolation of home and gather in the fire-lit dark with like-minded others will provide an irresistible channel to guide the reopening of cinemas – and even, perhaps, their renewal.

published by The Guardian

Pedro Almodóvar’s lockdown diary

Part 1: the long journey to the night

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In the first part of his journal of Covid-19 quarantine, written on 23 March, the Spanish director details how he is coping with self-isolation and the films he has found solace in, from Goldfinger to 1950s American B-movies.

Part 1: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/pedro-almodovar-coronavirus-lockdown-diary-part-1

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Goldfinger. Sean Connery and Honor Blackman.

Continue reading “Pedro Almodóvar’s lockdown diary”

Directors on Directors

[Kubrick, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard, Satyajit Ray, Welles, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, Antonioni]

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PDF download: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1TbJ5UmSngXAK3S4e-owSvjhp_iHkS1IJ/view?usp=sharing

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There are very few directors, about whom you’d say you automatically have to see everything they do. I’d put Fellini, Bergman and David Lean at the head of my first list, and Truffaut at the head of the next level.  (1966)

I believe Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, and Federico Fellini are the only three filmmakers in the world who are not just artistic opportunists… Continue reading “Directors on Directors”