Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Title: A Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Release Date: September 18, 2019
Director: Céline Sciamma
Production Company: Lilies Films | Arte | Hold Up Films

In 18th-century France, a young artist named Marriane (Noémie Merlant) travels to a remote island in Brittany.  Her commission is to paint a portrait of the aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent as a betrothal gift to a nobleman in Milan. The problem is that Héloïse does not want to pose for the portrait so Marriane must pretend to be her companion and observe her features when she can.

Héloïse mourns the death of her sister and resents having to take her place marrying the nobleman and losing her relative autonomy in a convent.  Marriane has a great amount of independence and outspokenness for a woman of her time and the two begin to bond.  They also spend time with a third major character, the unflappable house maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and the film as a great number of scenes of women just enjoying one another’s company, something we don’t see too much of in film.

Not to get to spoilery, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Marriane and Héloïse’s relationship grows into a romantic one.  They make the best of the time they have and there is also much yearning for more. The acting performances of the three leads are magnificent and the film is gorgeous.

One stand out scene occurs on a beach by a bonfire (the scene that gives the film it’s title) where a group of Breton women we’ve never seen before (and never see again) begin singing and performing as if they were in The Revels.  It’s such a stunning moment in a movie that is largely very quiet with very few characters on screen.

Rating:  ****

Classic Movie Review: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Title: The Scarlet Empress
Release Date: September 15, 1934
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

This movie is absolutely bonkers.  The movie is a loose adaptation of the life of Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich) from the time she is selected to marry the heir to the Russian throne, the “half-wit” Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), until she she overthrew Peter and assumed the position of Empress.  John Davis Lodge plays Count Alexei, the handsome aristocrat who falls in love with Catherine and begins to disabuse the naive Catherine’s fairy tale beliefs of the Russian court (his name struck me as very familiar, and it’s because he later became Governor of Connecticut and had a turnpike named after him!).

Having Dietrich play a naive young woman is laughable, but not the most absurd thing about this movie.  That would be the ridiculous set design that includes giant, grotesque statuary lurking just about everywhere.  A considerable bit of the film’s budget also went to the fantastic costuming.  And there is a lot of explicit sexuality and violence in a film from 1934, as if they were trying to sneak in as much as they could before the production code went into effect.  The worst crime of all the excess of this film is that it all overshadows its star.  Having seen Dietrich own the screen in The Blue Angel, this feels like a glaring mistake.

There are some people who can enjoy movies that are “so bad they are good.”  I’m not one of them, but regardless, I can’t see this movie belonging on a greatest of all-time list.

Just as an aside, this movie reminded me I had seen a tv movie back when I was in high school called Young Catherine, starring Julia Ormond, that covered many of the same plot points with less cinematic excess.

Rating: **