8/7/20

August 2020 Music: John Prine, Great Big World, The Dead South, Kevin Krauter, Rose Hotel



 

Sometimes being a music reviewer sucks. I’d love to tell you that The Tree of Forgiveness is a great album. Alas, it may be the worst album John Prine ever made. Prine–who died of COVID-19 on April 7–is in my list of top five favorite songwriters of all time. Few had his mix of wit, poignancy, and earworm melodies; he was a classic laugh-your-rear-off/cry-your-eyes-out guy who kept things simple on the surface so he could bore into your soul. The last song he ever wrote, “I Remember Everything” grabs onto that. Alas, it’s not on The Tree of Forgiveness. The album starts with promise, but doesn’t sustain it. “Knockin’ On Your ScreenDoor” both honors and mildly lampoons country music: I once had a family/But they up and left me/With nothin’ but an eight track/Another side of George Jones…. He goes for this vibe again on “Egg & Daughter: Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967,” but it’s more forced and relied upon a lot of backing instrumentation to cover the rasp in his voice. A calypso “I Have Met My Love Today” was not his métier and not even Brandi Carlile’s backup vocals help. “Summer’s End” is a sweet song, but linking metaphors appear to have been chosen because they scan rather than make sense. I liked the dark “Caravan of Fools,” though it’s more like something Townes Van Zandt would have sung. Likewise, you’ll hear echoes of Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” with Prine’s words in “No Ordinary Blue.” “God Only Knows” just isn’t a very good song. It’s an expression of Prine’s faith, which I respect, but comes off as a Christian camp singalong that probably would have sounded better around a camp fire. He ends with “When I Give to Heaven,” from which the album title derives, a combination of spoken word and a barrelhouse chorus. Prine’s wry comments bring a smile, but musically it’s run-of-the-mill. I wish Prine had left us with a bang instead of a gravely whisper.     

 

Epic Records’ A Great Big World is the New York-based duo of Ian Axel (keys) and Chad King (lead vocals, guitar). Many know of them because they recorded two singles with Christina Aguilera, “Say Something” (2013) and “Fall On Me” (2019). They recently visited Paste Studios to sing those two, plus “Darling It’s Over,” which will presumably be on an album scheduled to release soon. Maybe it’s heresy, but I like the first two songs better without Aguilera. “Say Something” is a gorgeous and deeply moving song anchored by Axel’s somber piano and vocals. It’s about letting go for various reasons (dead relationship, depression, impending death). Live, the focus is on the song; in the video version with Aguilera, she’s so busy vamping I thought she was going to make love to herself. The Paste version of “Fall On Me” is another tear-jerker with tight harmonies and a slow build that becomes lush and dramatic almost imperceptibly. It’s a plea to, fall on me with all your might, but tempered with the knowledge that, I want to believe in a world we can’t see. As for “Darling It’s Over,” the title says it all!

 

Sometimes social media works the way it’s supposed to. Back in 2014, The Dead South vaulted from obscurity to the limelight when its single “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company” went viral. In case you missed the party and think this black-hatted band pays homage to the Confederacy, members are actually from Saskatchewan and the costumes are affectations for a group they jokingly refer to as the “evil twins of Mumford and Sons.” That’s a great way to describe a style we might call “darkgrass.” You can see them in a short Paste Studios concert. The first song is “Black Lung,” and if you know anything about mining, you know this one will be tinged with tragedy. It’s soulful, bluesy, has hints of gospel, and is paced by Colton Crawford’s banjo. He’s most prominent on the breakdown “Blue Trash” in which Nate Hilts’ baritone vocals are essentially the bridge to instrumental flourishes from Crawford’s banjo, Scott Pringle’s mandolin, and Danny Kenyon’s cello. (Kenyon often plays the cello as if it’s a guitar.) The set rounds off with “Broken Cowboy,” a bluegrass tragedy of a man slowed by age, regret, and the passing of an era. Good stuff from a fine band.

 

Kevin Krauter began his career as an indie pop performer, but his recent Paste set was an acoustic one with folk flavorings. He’s adroit in either genre, as you can hear in “Surprise,” both live and on the official video of the studio recording. As a solo act, Krauter keeps things simpler and allows his light tenor voice to dance amidst his guitar’s higher tones. This is gives it a fragile feel that fits the song’s themes of self-discovery. (He was raised in a Christian home and was home schooled, but recently came out as gay.) His new CD is called Full Hand, and features a jangly title track. With lines such as It’s time to reveal my full hand, it too plumbs the personal. “Pretty Boy” is a rare song in which the male gaze is toward another male. I really like Krauter’s voice, but it must be said that his set could have used more variety; the four songs were pleasant, but needed contrasting color.

 

There’s a Biblical parable often paraphrased as don’t hide your light under a basket. I admire the voice of Atlanta’s Jordan Reynolds aka/ Rose Hotel. I’m less enamored with the production on her debut full-length album I Will Only Come When It’s a Yes. There’s way too much going on, and it overwhelms Reynolds’ voice. “10 K” has a retro romantic ballad feel, though the song’s lyrics are about not knowing herself, the future, or what’s right. Reynolds has a big voice, but not big enough to punch through “Write Home,” which has a chanteuse feel but with too many layers. The guitar in “Running Behind” has kick, but again if the mix was punched down, Reynolds wouldn’t have to try so hard to provide mystery and ambience. “Honestly” is what Reynolds could become. We can hear clear vibrato and marvel at how long she sustains notes and how easily she shifts pitch. It’s just she, an acoustic guitar, and a song that sounds as if it was lifted from an old-style crooner such as Connie Smith or Kitty Wells (sans the twang).  

 

Rob Weir

 

8/5/20

Rethinking Mommie Dearest

Mommie Dearest (1981)
Directed by Frank Perry
Paramount, 129 minutes, PG (violence)
★★★

All reviewers have weaknesses. One of mine is curiosity about movies proclaimed to be awful. I had never seen Mommie Dearest, the notorious 1981 exposé of Joan Crawford (1904?-77) based on her adopted daughter Christina’s memoir. Although the film was not a box office bomb, it was savaged as camp, crap, or totally concocted. After all, it made a Hollywood legend into a monster at a time in which Crawford was not yet four years dead.

In my view, it’s worth watching, though it is campy in parts. Some critics praised Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Crawford. Dunaway was herself nearing the end of her reign as a Hollywood idol, so the role of Crawford seemed to fit like a glove. In retrospect, it was more like a mitten. Her performance often pushes the needle into the red on the histrionics meter and one wonders if director Frank Perry lacked the courage to make her dial it back. Dunaway had a reputation for being very difficult. In Mommie Dearest she munched scenes like a koala in a eucalyptus grove.    

For the unknowing, Crawford desperately wanted a child, but suffered miscarriages. She was deemed an inappropriate candidate for adoption, because she had been divorced–a disqualifier back then–and she and her current husband, actor Franchot Tone, were said to be too busy to care a child. With the help of Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), her lover after she divorced Tone in 1939, Crawford adopted Christina, a blond cutie pie. For a time, Christina and her adopted brother Christopher were doted upon. If Christina is to be believed, their dream world became a nightmare. Hollywood queens often sit upon the throne less time than one of Henry VIII’s wives; in 1938, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva) declared her “box office poison” and pushed her out of MGM. She went on to Warner Brothers  and won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce in 1945, but in the interim, Christina claimed her mother became a violent authoritarian drunk who abused her, most infamously by beating her with wire hangers, and by forcing her brother to strap himself in bed so he wouldn’t walk to the bathroom at night. Christina grew up sullen and defiant, so Crawford sent her off to private schools. Did any of this happen?

First, let’s talk about what’s good in the film. Mommie Dearest certainly gives insight into how Hollywood royalty lived. It is a world that could have been clipped from Newport society, except filled with celebrities instead of upper-class twits. Note that the elaborate lawn and pool parties you see took place near the end of the Great Depression and through World War II, so call them glamour, privilege, and tone deafness on the part of pampered stars. Second, a few of the secondary roles were well played. Forrest plays Savitt deftly in his attract/repel/recyle relationship with Crawford. Rutanya Alda maintained the same balancing act as Carol Ann, Crawford’s assistant, but tread-softly protectress of Christina. In the just-for-kicks department, the Redbook reporter whose puff piece on Crawford an angry Christina disrupts is Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister.

On the minus side, the actors playing adult Christopher and Christina (Xander Berkeley and Diana Scarwid) are outshone by the child actors. Quite a bit in Scarwid’s case; young Christina (Mara Hobel) is so vivacious that we too hurt when she is abused. By contrast, Scarwid is too flat to make us believe in her anger, and simply lacks the chops to turn sweet when the role called for it.  The biggest flaw, though, came from trying to do too much. The last quarter of the movie is like a Crawford career coda, including nods to later films, her involvement with Pepsi, and subbing for her twenty-something daughter in a soap opera when she was in her sixties. These things happened, but this wasn’t supposed to be a Crawford biopic. One odd omission, though, is that Crawford adopted two other daughters, who got the bulk of her estate when she died.

This inevitably raises the question of how much one should trust Christina’s book. I don’t know. Much of Hollywood rallied to denounce Mommie Dearest as a fake; others vouched that it was accurate. I can only say that Christina’s life—she is 81 now—followed in her adopted mother’s footsteps in that she was divorced three times and flamed out as an actress. She ultimately enjoyed more success as a writer. Mommie Dearest won awards, but not of the Oscar variety; it claimed five Golden Raspberrys, which are “awarded” for bad movies. It’s not a terrible movie; merely incomplete and unconvincing.

Rob Weir



8/3/20

Extinctions a Charming Novel about Sad Things

Extinctions: A Novel (2018)
By Josephine Wilson
Tin House Books, 349 pages
★★★★

A few days ago, I posted a review of Weather, which featured a character who worried about the end of human time. I found it trite. Let me offer what I perceive to be a far better book about things passing away, Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions.

It is set in 2006, though there is no particular reason for that, and centers on 69-year-old Frederick Lothian. He will immediately put you in mind of Frederick Backman’s titular character in A Man Called Ove. Fred was born in Scotland, moved to Australia, and married an American woman whom he met at JFK Airport during a trip to the States. He is a retired engineering professor with a great love of concrete. Why? Because it represents solidity, longevity, and simple design unadorned with frippery. How he managed to attract a vibrant woman like Martha and raise two kids—an adopted daughter and an unexpected biological son—is a mystery even to him, though he doesn’t spent a lot of time musing upon abstractions such as feelings. He’s clueless that there could be such a thing as a gay architect, or that his alleged best friend Ralph was an untrustworthy jerk. He also has a lot of trouble with metaphors.

Fred has spent his life surrounded by things built to last, and bound to remain that way if one doesn’t actually use them, like a Wassily tubular chair, a Braun SK6 turntable, and a classic electric shaver. The solidity of Fred’s world begins to crumble when his wife dies and he finds himself a recluse living in a retirement village cottage into which he has crammed books, files, and furniture from his former house. He might get by on his own, were it not for the woman next door with all those noisy budgies (parakeets), or witnessing the troubling sight of an elderly resident falling to the ground.

The title aside, Extinctions is funny, affecting, and thought-provoking. Fred’s neighbor, Jan, a retired primary school teacher, will challenge Fred to consider that maybe his life has been as rigid as rebar. His adopted daughter, Caroline, is a half-caste (Australian term) Aborigine who has issues Fred has never considered. She’s a curator who lives in London, but has made trips back to Australia about which he was unaware. Nor was he tuned in to the many of the things his wife did, especially in caring for their son Callum, whose auto accident left him brain damaged. How could Fred have never noticed how self-centered he is, how angry Caroline grew up to be, or what racist bastards some of his former colleagues are? Indeed, how could he have so thoroughly buried his own youth? And why does Jan seem perpetually exasperated by him?

Whereas Jenny Offill’s Weather relied upon written thought bubbles and aphorisms, Wilson uses photographs and blueprints that force us to see things that have proven transitory. One of the most heart wrenching is one of Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon. It’s doubly poignant, as Martha was the name of Fred’s deceased wife. Others challenge our definition of durability, including pictures of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in collapse and after. Not much is made of it, but the picture of a World War I tank looks an awful lot like an electric razor!  

In a quiet way—and men such as Fred or Ove don’t have skyrocket revelations—Extinctions asks us to consider what we cherish and how we act. What do we value, as opposed to things that have value? The opening epigram, a snippet from a W. H. Auden poem, puts it much better than I could ever hope: Column by column in a cloud of dust/They marched away enduring a belief/Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

Rob Weir

7/31/20

From Edmund Pettus to John Lewis Bridge Now!



I am not a fan of cancel culture. Hegel once said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” He exaggerated, though it is true we don’t learn much. We need to look the ugliness of the past (and the present!) in the eye rather than sanitizing it or we won’t learn anything worth learning. More importantly, extremists caught up in antifa, BLM, and cancel culture moments are handing Trump a huge campaign issue. If Trump is reelected, not a damn thing extremists are doing will matter.

John Lewis in 1965
There are, however, times in which cancel culture is justified. The symbolism of a mule-drawn wagon bearing the body of Representative John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, is profound. Lewis was a decent man, a champion of civil rights, and a victim of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of 1965, when he and 600 marchers tried to cross the Alabama River and into Selma.

Who was Edmund Winston Pettus? The short answer is that he was a racist. That doesn’t tell us much, nor does the first line you read in most online biographies: “a U.S. Senator from Alabama from 1897-1907.” It’s not pretty, but most white people were racist well into the 1960s and beyond; that’s why there was a civil rights movement and why John Lewis tried to cross the Pettus Bridge in 1965.

Edmund Pettis
As for Pettus (1821-1907) being a “U.S. Senator,” that’s almost a joke. Pettus grew up in Alabama, where his family owned slaves. Young Edmund was an ardent supporter of slavery. Pettus fought in the Mexican War (1846-48) and briefly moved to California–just in time to help exterminate most of the Yuki natives who had the audacity to leave their reservation. He wasn’t there for the infamous Mendocino War of 1859 in which troops finished the job, but he would have applauded it. (Today there are fewer than 250 full-blood Yukis left.) He moved back to Alabama in 1853 and beat the drums for secession, though ironically the region around Selma was mostly opposed to it. When the Civil War began, he gleefully joined the Confederate army.

Pettus was captured when Vicksburg fell, but the Union foolishly released him in a prisoner exchange. He was immediately promoted to brigadier general and sent to Tennessee. He also took part in unsuccessful attempts to repulse Sherman’s March to the Sea until he was put out of commission by a leg wound that some have claimed was self-inflicted. He was again jailed, but pardoned after the war.

Caroline Randall Williams, gt. gt. granddaughter of Pettus
Pettus falls into the category of unrepentant traitor. As an Alabama Democrat–back then, the Democrats were civil rights opponents–he supported the infamous Black Codes, the collective term given to scores of laws across the South immediately after the Civil war that sought to disenfranchise and deny civil liberties to ex-slaves. Pettus then became an outspoken opponent of Reconstruction. When it ended in 1877, he became the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Alabama had the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the lynching of African Americans. We have no evidence that Pettus actually took part in these, but as Grand Dragon it’s inconceivable he did not know about or sanction them. He remained a Klansman for the rest of his days. Like many white Southerners, his racism did not quell his lust for black women. He fathered a mixed-race child, probably via rape. (A black woman bringing charges against a white man under Alabama’s post-Reconstruction laws would have been unthinkable.)

Peach of a man, right? It didn’t prevent Pettus from becoming a U.S. Senator. Bad history articles will tell you that Pettus was “elected” to the U.S. Senate in 1897 by “defeating” James Pugh. Not quite. Pugh was no prince either, but Pugh "lost" his renomination to the U.S. Senate courtesy of party leaders. Until the 17th Amendment was enacted in 1913, citizens did not choose U.S. Senators; they were appointed by individual state legislatures. That of Jim Crow Alabama placed Pettus in Pugh’s place.

Pettus served until his death in 1907. Try finding anything significant he did during his decade in the Senate. Nonetheless, in 1940 the state of Alabama slapped Pettus’ name on a bridge. I’d like Pettus to be remembered–as a traitor, war criminal, racist, and hypocrite. Put up a museum display for future generations to ponder in disgust. As for the bridge, there is but one sane thing to do. It is time for the John Lewis Bridge to span the telling of a far more heroic past.

Rob Weir   


7/29/20

I Give It to You A Middling Effort


I Give It to You (August 4, 2020)
By Valerie Martin
Penguin Random House, 304 pages.
★★★

Valerie Martin is among my favorite novelists, but I must give a mixed review to her upcoming I Give It to You. There is much to like about any novel set partly in Tuscany, and Martin has a gift for storytelling, though this time plot lines and plot holes too often overlap. Martin also leaves herself open to charges of class insensitivity.

The novel opens in 1983, when Jan Vidor, an English professor at a Pennsylvania college, books a vacation stay on the grounds of a Tuscan country house. Her plan is to work on a new novel, but that scheme veers in different directions when she arrives at Villa Chiara (“bright villa”). The grounds bespeak wealth, but of a faded variety that starkly contrast with Jan’s light and airy quarters in a converted out-building. Days pass before she meets her hostess, Beatrice Bartolo Doyle, whose family owns the villa. Beatrice (Bee-ah-traay-chee) is an Italian professor at a small college and lives part of the year in New York State, which she dislikes. (She doesn’t seem to like teaching much either.) Jan’s fascination for Tuscany dovetails with Beatrice’s devotion to her native soil and forms the basis for a long friendship.  

I Give It to You is a multi-generational chronicle of the slow decline of the aristocratic Salviati/Bartolo family. Jan infers that the Mussolini years (1922-45) somehow diminished family fortunes, but surviving family members are silent or vague about what happened, which side they were on, and why Beatrice’s gentle uncle Sandro was killed during the waning days of World War II. This is odd, as Beatrice shares intimate details of being a graduate student in Boston and of her brief marriage to an Irish American man whose surname she and her son bear. Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” Tell it slant around a writer and she will try to straighten it, even if it takes years. Martin asks us to consider a writer’s craft. Should stories and biographies–told and untold–be used as raw material for one’s own yarn?

Jan is the book’s narrator, though mostly a passive and non-judgmental one. It is unclear whether she is also an unreliable one. That’s fine, as a major strength of I Give It to You is the ambiguous questions it poses. When someone answers a novelist’s query with a family story and says, “I give it to you,” does she merely mean she is recounting a tale, or is she giving permission for the novelist to do with it as she wishes? Does the dialogue we read–the chapters skip between real time and the past–represent Beatrice’s actual words and stories, or are they sections of the book Jan ultimately writes?

In my estimation Martin misses the boat by making Jan an underdeveloped character. We know little of who she is other than a curious observer. How can she not be appalled by the aristocratic haughtiness of Beatrice and her cousin Luca? This is especially evident in their expectations that those living on the estate should be forever deferential, and their expressed outrage when commoners show distressing signs of raising their own status. Along similar lines, how can Jan not make more of the fact that David, Beatrice’s adult son, is a pompous ass who has inherited his mother’s sense of privilege? Readers are free to choose whether Jan is clueless, starstruck by nobility, living vicariously through Beatrice, or as heartless as her erstwhile friend.

Novelists, like poets, are often introverts but they tend to reflect upon the human condition. If Martin would have us see Jan as both inquisitive and a relentless researcher, how can she be so obtuse? There is a logical disconnect in the small questions Jan asks in the name of uncovering the past, whilst ignoring big (and obvious) ones about the present. How can social class never come up in discussion? How is it that Jan never considers whether her friendship with Beatrice is deeper than the bottom of a wine glass? She doesn’t, thus the novel’s final lines ring hollow and false.

I Give It to You has been billed as a novel about “writing, friendship, family and betrayal.” Be forewarned that “writing” is the only uncloaked part of this equation, and even it raises more questions than it answers. One senses that Martin has too many devices in the fire, not the least of which is that Americans in Tuscany have gotten generous workouts in literature­. Martin herself has previously trod upon Tuscan turf in Italian Fever (1999). Despite being a different kind of book, the latter also involves a villa with secrets, the intoxicating effects of Italy, and a buttoned-down American writer. There is also the matter of a trans-Atlantic novel–parts take place in Boston, Cape Cod, New York State, and Pennsylvania–that strain for vitality outside of Italy. Likewise, the relationship between Beatrice and Jan seems only to bloom under a Tuscan sun.

I Give It to You has fascinating diversions, especially for those lucky enough to have visited Tuscany. These are, however, exactly that: diversions. It’s not a bad novel–Martin is too talented to write rubbish–and it bears saying that it holds one’s attention. Nonetheless, I Give It to You is a case in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Rob Weir  

7/27/20

Weather: A Hazy Novel


Weather: A Novel (2020)
By Jenny Offill
Alfred A. Knopf, 205 pages.


Have you ever seen any of those Woody Allen films in which Manhattan pseudo-intellectuals prattle on with great conviction about things they grasp only tangentially? Transfer the Lower East Side of the 1980s to Brooklyn Heights in the 2000s and you have the idea of Jenny Offill’s Weather. It has been widely hailed, but it will certainly be on my list of the worst books of 2020.

Offill plays off of two meanings of weather: metaphorical atmospheric shifts in social paradigms and “weathering” trauma. Those who like the book see it as a tale of our times from 9/11 to Trump and COVID. Those of us who dislike it see it as an unfocused expression of existential angst concluded with deus ex machina hope. To be sure, we live in trying times, much of which makes an appearance in the book: assortative mating, culture clashes, climate change, drug addiction, racism, struggles in the gig economy, and, worst of all, fear that the Anthropocene age is coming to an end. If you believe the last of these to be true, do you bother to get your teeth cleaned?

A young woman named Lizzie is at the center of Offill’s novel. She washed out of graduate school, much to the chagrin of her mentor, Sylvia, who pulled strings to secure her a place as a university librarian. Sylvia is (apparently) a social psychology professor who also has a podcast so popular that she is on the lecture trail and would like Lizzie to help her answer her mail. Lizzie does so, though she has a lot of her plate already. Her mother is ill, she and her husband Ben have an active son, Eli, whose needs must be balanced, and Lizzie’s brother Henry—to whom she is creepily attached—is an addict constantly trying to get straight. (As if marriage and a child of his own are good ways to accomplish that!)

These are the bare bones of the novel. Don’t expect flesh to appear. The book is written in small paragraphs, each set off from each other, and frequently disconnected. They appear more as diary entries, or perhaps real-time thoughts jotted in a journal. Some are aphorisms—though Pudd’nhead Wilson this isn’t—and others are fears real or projected. Many are also doomsday and disaster scenarios. Quite a few passages are beautifully written, but two major issues emerge. First, I can relate to running mental doomsday scenarios. I do it myself, but I am aware that they are fundamentally stupid, because the future immediate and hereafter is unknowable. Second, Offill’s literary device is by nature dissociative.

We know early one that Lizzie is smart, but a neurotic mess. She goes to Margot for meditation classes, which serve to give her bigger questions rather than helping her achieve Zen. She uses a private ride service she can’t afford because she worries she might be the only client of “Mr. Jimmy,” frets over a “doomed adjunct” slowly going squirrely, and avoids people who might engage or enrage her. She is a recluse who lives in her head, yet she somehow summons the energy to make survivalist plans with her husband. Alas, that’s about all she ever does. So what are reading, Wom[a]n on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown? Nope.  

The book has been praised for its dark humor, but I found it just plain annoying even though the issues Lizzie considers are important ones. Distinctions made between what is impossible and “barely possible” or unbearable and “barely bearable” are insufficient for an ending that feels more like resignation than resolution, and more barely connected than really connected. Any allusion to hope is akin to an Amazon delivery person who sprints to your door, drops the package on the porch, and jogs away. Weather is well written, but to what purpose? Like many of the novel’s detractors, the best I can say is that it’s short.

Rob Weir  

7/22/20

Portrait of a Lady on Fire a Rare Treasure


Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Directed by Céline Sciamma
Pyramide Films, 122 minutes, R (nudity, abortion)
In French, Italian, and Latin with subtitles
★★★★★


Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a huge hit in LGBTQ film festivals for its frank and steamy take on the relationship between two women, a painter and her subject. Do not make the mistake of thinking of it as “just” a lesbian film. It is one of the best movies of the past two years, period. That’s why Céline Sciamma won a César award for both best director and best screenplay, why Claire Mathon won for best cinematography, and why the film carried off the Palme d’or Jury Prize. It’s also why it has won recognition from everyone from the Golden Globes to the National Board of Review. 

The film opens to a gowned art teacher, Marianne (Noémïe Merlant), posing for her students while offering instruction on how to observe. As the class draws to an end, a student asks her if a painting in the back of the room of a woman peering out across the ocean is one of hers. Marianne acknowledges that it is, and is titled Portrait de la jeune fille en feu. With this we flash back to 1770, when Marianne is in a small boat being rowed across sea swells to an island off the coast of Brittany. At one point she dives into the ocean to retrieve a large flat box filed with canvasses.

On land, the soggy Marianne hauls said box and other belongings up a steep cliff to a cheerless and spartan estate, where she meets the Countess (Valeria Golino). Marianne is tasked with painting a portrait of the Countess’ daughter Héloïse (Adèle Kaenel) that will be sent to a Milanese nobleman destined to be her future husband. (Think of how anyone in an impending arranged marriage would know what their betrothed looked like in the days before photography.) Marianne must pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and get close enough to memorize her features, as Héloïse disfigured the previous male painter’s effort.

Posing as a companion isn’t hard, but getting close is. We learn that Héloïse was called back to Brittany from a convent after her sister, the intended bride, threw herself off a cliff. The only other person in the house is a servant, Sophie (Luàna Bejrami) so there’s lots of room to roam, as the estate is far from the village. Marianne and Héloïse spend a lot of time walking along windy bluffs–almost wordlessly for a time, as Héloïse has no desire to be married and misses the music of the convent. She knows next to nothing about the world and is essentially out of her element. After endless hours traipsing moors, headlands, and beaches Marianne is exhausted and must force herself to paint. I imagine some of you are holding Gothic thoughts–battered old home, windswept cliffs, foul weather…. There are even spectral visions. Stop! This is not Jane Eyre Lite.

Marianne will soon become Héloïse’s conduit for learning about the world. As Héloïse’s exterior thaws, frisson sparks between them. Héloïse is especially intrigued to learn that Marianne has no desire to marry and plans to take over her father’s business when he passes. Soon the two and Sophie spend time talking, playing cards, and gadding about. Before you can say forbidden love, Marianne and Héloïse have shared a bed. When the Countess must leave for a week on the mainland, Héloïse’s emotional and physical love for Marianne deepens. An attempt to help Sophie leads Marianne and Héloïse into the company of village women. The film features a gorgeous sequence of women on the beach after sunset, singing around a bonfire. Their tune is wild and uninhibited, with keening evocative of Balkan music, though it’s actually a piece Sciamma wrote. The hand clapping and soaring voices evoke a witches’ coven, though it’s nothing of the sort. It is, however, one of two episodes that make sense of the film’s title.

To add still another layer of awakening, Marianne and Héloïse read to Sophie. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice baffles her. Why, Sophie wonders, would Orpheus make his way to the Underworld to reclaim his love and then do the one thing he was told not to do: look behind him until he was outside of the abyss. Héloïse’s response startles Marianne and I will only say that it is a unique female perspective that she will later use in a painting.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film about passion at a time in which independent-minded women had to be careful about many things. And sometimes they must simply yield to social expectations. Among the things the film does well is give us glimpses into how painters think and practice their craft, how the heart tricks the mind, and how planted seeds blossom later. The performances of Merlant and Haenel are marvels to behold, and one can only be astounded by Sciamma’s efforts. What more could she do after writing the script, some of the music, and directing? Well, she also hired a painter who reportedly spent 16 hours a day at her easel so that her work could mesh with the demands of the narrative in real time. Sciamma also uses the untamed coast of Brittany near Saint-Pierre-Quiberon as if it’s a major character. Sometimes its waters sparkle in turquois; at others it is white-capped fury evocative of inner turmoil.

Where does love go when it is sniped too early?  Page 28 gives a clue, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” another, and painted canvasses still more. None of this will make sense unless you see the film. Call them three good reasons to do so, and there are many more. If I might, Portrait of a Lady On Fire is a painterly treasure.

Rob Weir