REVIEW: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a great film. I think more than anything I enjoyed it because it felt so different. Yes, French painting and romance and a dramatic craggy coast suggest a formula, but the reality is that these elements served a higher purpose than simply a love story: they worked in tandem with a great script and thoughtful camera work to produce a surprisingly humorous and touching story not only of romance, but of women and (even as the word feels cliché) sisterhood.


Disclaimer: Though this is an LGBTQ+ story, I recognize that it still speaks to a specific privilege both socioeconomic and racial. There are blind spots in this story, as the understanding of the oppression of one group does not erase the class struggles and other racial inequities present. I still think that this film is worth enjoying, though, because it still speaks broadly to oppression/repression and historic positioning of non-heteronormative sexuality is important.


What most threw me off seeing this film (in a good way!) was the distinct voice of the director and the writing. This film did take itself seriously but at times allowed for some really refreshing comedic moments. These ranged from quippy dialogue to visually clever shots, always keeping me engaged and quite honestly adding a level of unpredictability to the tone. Entering a scene, you never really knew what its purpose was, which was really intriguing in what previously appeared to me to be a straightforward romance.


What was most touching about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is how, for a fair portion of the movie, the main characters are allowed to simply be happy. The audience watches as the two central figures are left to their own devices with the young maid of the house. What results is a really sweet portrait of feminine domesticity–not in terms of a gender role, but rather as a group of women living coexisting in a beautiful way. Of course, there are problems and arguments that arise, but really the three women function as a symbiotic family. Scenes of everyday life are permitted to breathe, taking their sweet time and creating in the viewer this unique feminine vision of harmony, wholly undramatic and wholly human.


I say feminine because the reality is that there are hardly any men acting in this film. It seems as though all the problems in the film, both societal and personal, stem from some unnamed man off screen. And I’m alright with that. I think it is a really interesting way, ultimately, to make a story about women and their real issues without having to explicitly involve the oppressors.


This film speaks to intense internal struggles while also highlighting the beauty and joy that can exist simultaneously with said struggles. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re an artist (those painting shots were gave me such vicarious joy as a painter without access to a studio). If anything, the film is worth it for a beautiful closing long take, one that will long remain in my mind.

REVIEW: Oscar Nominated Shorts – Live Action

I’ll be going through and leaving my thoughts on each of these, though I’d like to say that it is really a shame that “The Neighbors’ Window” won. It was truly the least important and most cliché short of all five. That said, seeing these shorts in a theater setting was really unique and enjoyable and way more immersive than I think possible at home when you’re dealing with short film.


“The Neighbors’ Window”
Marshall Curry

As previously stated, this short was definitely the weakest of the bunch. It had this whiny quality throughout, that specific privileged metropolitan 40-year-old why-did-I-have-kids whining that I am sick of trying to identify with. Of course, the point at the end is for these whiny people to realize how lucky they really are but overall I just felt like the point is no one can be happy. The whole cancer element as a way of introducing hardship into the 20-something couple’s life made me roll my eyes. The visuals of shaving one’s head and getting a hospice bed are just so on the nose I had to wonder if this was a satire.


“Nefta Football Club”
Yves Piat, Damien Megherbi
This is the short that I assumed would win. It was clever, well-paced, and actually made my theater laugh out loud. In contrast to the heavier themes in this category, this short felt like a lighter way to go about serious issues. I highly recommend seeing this one, as it is thoroughly enjoyable both on its surface and in terms of technical cinematography and performance.


Bryan Buckley, Matt Lefebvre
This short was definitely hard to watch. I appreciated this story being told, and the way the camera travels throughout the story was impressive at times. I do feel like there was something missing from this, though. Maybe it was because the setting was something I’ve never seen before or because the ending felt like such a binary evil (though it was, but it verged on cartoonish I might say?), but I felt myself hoping for more contextualization I suppose. It is an important piece of film to see though, especially for US audiences.


Meryam Joobeur, Maria Gracia Turgeon
This short was the most intriguing to me of all of them. Centering on a family whose oldest son is returning from joining ISIS, this short was gritty and touching and made me feel like I was offered a window into a world far away from my own. I highly recommend it.

“A Sister”

Delphine Girard
Finally, this piece was a really strong contender for me as well. It was a study of suspense and solidarity, and was probably the most engrossing of all the shorts. The lighting choices and dialogue specifically made this short a memorable and altogether artistic experience. As a woman works with a emergency line operator, one feels both impending doom and an unrelenting hope at the same time, which makes for a stressful but thought-provoking experience.

PREVIEW: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film I have heard much about, despite its lack of attention in mainstream media and throughout the American awards season. Depicting the story of a portrait created in confidence, this French film features arresting cinematography and a look at an intense relationship between two women. This film has been nominated for everything from best actress to costume design to the Palme d’Or, and so there’s definitely something worth seeing here, even if it hasn’t been on many people’s radar.


Come out to the State tomorrow at 7 to see this surely fascinating film and support international cinema!

PREVIEW: Oscar Nominated Shorts – Live Action

In preparation for the Oscars this Sunday, I implore you all to head to the Michigan Theater and check out the often neglected category of shorts. The live action category offers strong contenders this year, coming from international backgrounds and touching on a variety of important subjects. I’m looking forward to my own first time previewing the shorts before the (inflated and problematic, but still undeniably enjoyable) Oscars.


What’s more is that admission to all the shorts is free with a Passport to the Arts Voucher through the 13th of February! No excuses!

REVIEW: Les Misérables

Les Misérables was one of my favorite films I’ve seen in the past few months. In describing the film and what I liked about it (at a hundred miles a minute) to my friend, she responded saying, “It’s really interesting that even Paris has these kinds of disparities and issues.” She was referring to police corruption and brutality and its role in lower income communities. This surprised me, but at the same time the American idea of Paris (and France in general) has always been a highly contrived product of the global imagination. So before I even go into the content of the film, straight out the gate I think it’s important that it is shown in the US. In a related way, it’s easy to apply our context of race relations to all media we encounter, but the construct of race is as highly pervasive as it is contextual.


Before I praise the film, I do want to address that it isn’t perfect. The narrative of police brutality given mostly from the perspective of the police team didn’t sit super well with me, though I did find the nuance behind (most) of the officers to be effective in illustrating the logic of power abuse. Ultimately, the community and after effects of the police force’s actions feel underrepresented as well. I think it’s important to be critical about the representation of power structures in media. My perspective is quite limited here and so I highly recommend consulting other reviews in constructing your takeaways from Les Misérables.


I thought the tension achieved in this film was both amazing and highly uncomfortable. The fact that the chronology of the story is condensed into two days in such a skillful way contributes to this. Throughout the movie, we come to understand the different hubs in the community’s network through a series of telling interactions. These confrontations alternate between severe escalation and de-escalation of tension, culminating in an electrifying conclusion. It all feels very quick, but at the same time, I left the theater feeling an acute sense of dislocation.


Don’t let the subtitles scare you; I thoroughly recommend this highly relevant film. I equally recommend being critical about it and using it as a catalyst for conversation and reflection.

REVIEW: The Believers Are But Brothers

The Believers Are But Brothers was a theatrical experience I’m glad to have taken a part of. And I do feel as though I took part in it, as the show felt sort of like a conversation between performer Javaad Alipoor and the audience. The fact that a WhatsApp group of the audience was constantly ringing in my hands was also a pretty big part of this feeling.


And I know everyone wants to talk about what it means to have a communal theater experience via our phones and the interest of this choice is obvious. But I’m still going to talk about it too.


I’ve been to a handful of UMS and SMTD performances, and the age disparity has always been there. Can I say it’s surprising that the majority of attendees at these shows are much older? No, to be quite honest it’s hard to get student foot traffic to go anywhere if free food isn’t offered. I found this imbalance to be really clear during the show, though, and really intriguing. At the beginning of the show, a large group of older attendees leaned over to ask what everyone was doing on their phones–they didn’t have the app and throughout the show leaned to watch the conversation (I guess that’s the word for it?) on my phone or the person’s in front of them. I’m sure this experience was equally meaningful, though, as it most likely mirrored the disconnect they have towards the darker parts of the internet.


And that’s a lot of this show; Alipoor would describe internet phenomena that I’m sure was new to plenty of the audience, and then offer narratives of young men taking part in and affected by such concepts. I found the rhythm of the show to be really engaging, as it alternates between the unfolding of intense, affecting stories and more casual audience interaction.


This show feels like a piece of a puzzle. These concepts are monumental and I realized that there are so many connecting pieces and stories that I left The Believers Are But Brothers wanting to see more. I wanted to understand Alipoor’s more complete idea of this whirlwind of a decade (that is definitely kind of impossible to do, but I digress). Turns out, there is a sequel: Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, and ultimately Alipoor is making a trilogy. Here’s hoping that we have the chance to see his work again soon.