PFF 2019: Varda By Agnès; Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

by Rachel Bellwoar

The 28th Philadelphia Film Festival Coverage, Part 1

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma

When La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) hired Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to paint her daughter’s portrait, she left out the part about Hélöise (Adèle Haenel) not wanting to pose for her. It’s unclear whether it would’ve made a difference if she had but turning down a job on an island takes some forethought. It’s literally impossible to walk away.

Marianne’s boat ride is one of the few scenes where you see any men in the movie (an absence brought about naturally from their isolation) yet when Marianne’s crate falls in the water, she’s the one who jumps in after it and later carries it up to the house, with the rest of her belongings.

All of Marianne’s scenes, before meeting Hélöise, emphasize her independence. Her job is a big part of that, too, but, for Hélöise, Marianne’s job means potentially losing her freedom. The portrait is for her would-be fiancée and, if he likes her looks, they’re going to be married.

Naturally, Hélöise doesn’t get a portrait in return. All she knows about him is he’s from Milan and was supposed to marry her sister (whose death was likely caused by suicide), but Portrait never confuses the issue for being about him. The problem is Hélöise not having a choice.

While Portrait initially favors Marianne’s perspective, Hélöise is as much ‘observer’ as ‘person being observed’ and you can understand why, not knowing Marianne’s profession, she might start to wonder about her glances. If Portrait makes you reconsider Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s just as guilty of clearing up why so many artists and muses become lovers.

With a portrait session to rival Jack and Rose’s in The Titantic and an empathy for Hélöise’s mom that isn’t often allowed, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is equal parts dreamy and sexy (a credit to Claire Mathon’s cinematography), and particularly evolved in the way it handles endings. While Pose showed that you can tell LQBTQ stories without tragedy, Portrait of a Lady on Fire shows that love can be finite without being bitter.

A second showing of Portrait of a Lady on Fire screens this Saturday, October 26th at 3 PM at the Ritz East. It’s also been picked up for distribution by Hulu.


Varda By Agnès

Directed by Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda’s final film, since passing away last March, at age 90, Varda by Agnès sees Varda looking back at her unparalleled career in a documentary that is less concerned with telling the academic version of her life than putting the focus on her work and art. Many of Varda’s films were personal. From Daguerreótypes, a documentary about the shops on the rue Daguerre where she lived, to Jacquot de Nance, a film about her husband, Jacques Demy’s, childhood made from notes he wrote while he was dying, Varda’s trademark was her love of, and genuine interest in, people (fittingly the film starts with what would usually be the closing credits, so no one can skip out on them at the end).

Inspiration. Creation. Sharing. These are the three words Varda names as being important to her, and in line with the last one (and Varda’s acknowledged preference for filming other people more than herself) Varda uses clips from a talk she gave as the baseline of the movie, with the camera often filming her from behind, looking out at the audience (favoring the back of her head to talking heads).

Having just watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire the day before (where Marianne often watches Hélöise from behind until she gains her trust), you can see the potential in screening these films as a double feature. Both are female-directed by French feminists who participated in the protest at Cannes in 2018. Both consider art as a means for retaining memories (through painting in the 18th century and changing technologies in the 20th and 21st). Both centralize female issues in their work (Varda’s One Sings, The Other Doesn’t would be another good match for Portrait).

If you want to be picky, Varda by Agnès doesn’t have the tightest structure. While you can (and will want to) seek out Varda’s other films, after seeing some snippets, the sections where Varda talks about her visual installations feel more exclusive to this documentary. If you love Agnes, though, then you’re familiar with her gift for appreciating the beauty in the everyday, incorporating aspects of documentary, even in her fiction, and making every minute spent in her company rapturous.

When inspiration struck, Agnes filmed it. Knowing who she was makes all the difference in the world. Two years ago, the Philadelphia Film Festival screened Faces Places, her documentary with artist, JR. I knew her name but not her movies so didn’t see it. Today I wouldn’t dream of missing that film. The sooner you find out about Agnès Varda, the better.

The 28th Philadelphia Film Festival runs from October 17th to October 27th. Click here for the full schedule.

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