Telluride 46: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, which received the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, is an absorbing depiction of two women in an earlier era that has been masterfully filmed by director/writer Celine Sciamma.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Marianne, an artist (Noemie Merlant) arrives on an isolated island in Brittany to paint a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for a prospective husband. Heloise has exhausted a previous painter’s attempts at a portrait. Marianne is to pretend to be a companion to Heloise, observe her, and paint the portrait in secret.

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Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

When Heloise’s mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino) leaves the island, Heloise and Marianne remain alone in the island household with the maid.

Celine Sciamma‘s direction is exceptional, both in visually conveying the isolation of the rocky island as well as the changing relationship between painter and subject.

Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant give superlative and subtle performances as their characters’ glances at each other, as they walk outdoors, build into a deepening attraction. The film becomes an enthralling view of the development of an intense relationship that the era would force to become hidden. Heloise and Marianne also help the maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) deal with her own secret.

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Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

The film concludes with an unforgettable close-up of Haenel containing a deep range of emotions.

Director Celine Sciamma and Adele Haenel discussed their film at the Telluride Film Festival. Sciamma said that in France, 25% of the directors are female. She wanted a change from having female characters marginal to a film. She described her “Portrait” as “about love and creation” and looking with a “gaze obsessed”.


Celine Sciamma at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Sciamma wanted her two main female characters the be “centered” on “new experiences” and “put in active as subjects”. She described her film as a “love story with equality”.

Haenel said that between Marianne and Heloise there is a “cross between subject and object”, and the film is created around this question. She added that each of the two women begins with a “cold and retrained face as mask” that evolves to a “more emotional” gaze.


Adele Haenel at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Sciamma laughed while saying that “through art history, the female point of view”, in a “quick read, doesn’t exist”. She spoke of wanting her “Portrait” to view the “heart and mind of a woman of that century (eighteenth)” and to be a film that “pushed boundaries”.

Telluride 46:”A Hidden Life” from Terrence Malick

“A Hidden Life”, the best of the 16 films I saw at the Telluride Film Festival, is one of Terrence Malick’s (“The Tree of Life”, “Badlands”) finest. This emotionally powerful and masterfully photographed film is based on the true story of an Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) who refuses to swear support to Hitler. Valerie Pachner portrays his devoted wife Franziska.

As in many Malick films, “A Hidden Life” has beautiful, sweeping photography. The location is the Austrian countryside and mountains where Franz and his family live and farm. There are three young daughters. These scenes give a sense of natural freedom where the farmers are dwarfed by the majestic scenery.


August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in “A Hidden Life”

After Hitler invades Austria, Franz on principal refuses to take a loyalty oath to Hitler. His action is met by disdain from his neighbors. His family receives hostile looks while leaving church. He receives no support from the clergy. He is told his “sacrifice helps no one”. Franz says “I can’t do what I believe is wrong”. Franz remains a conscientious objector.

Both August Diehl and Valerie Pachner have extremely expressive faces that convey the deep devotion and support of Franz and his wife, as well as the anguish when they are separated after Franz is arrested.”

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August Diehl in “A Hidden Life”

The confining quarters where Franz is jailed are a striking contrast to the expansive outdoors where Franz and his family worked. A lawyer calls Franz a “stubborn man” as he remains determined in his moral stand against Hitler.

“A Hidden Life” has one of the most effective uses of Malick’s trademark on-screen narration. Diehl and Pachner bring deep feeling to the letters and thoughts of Franz and Franziska, giving an intense poignancy to the film.

Franz Jägerstätter’s decisions provide a thought-provoking and continually relevant aspect to Malick’s film on the value of taking a dangerous moral stand even if the decision does not have any direct effect. A quote from the film is “Time will come when we know what all this is for”.

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Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in “A Hidden Life”

Both August Diehl and Valerie Pachner spoke about “A Hidden Life” after a screening at the Telluride Film Festival.

Pachner said the film is “different each time you see it”, adding “so many layers”, a “love story…so much more”. She said Malick brings back a feeling of “love, faith, simplicity of life”.

Diehl said Malick’s choices of voice-over changed his film “many times”. He said that as preparation for portraying farmers, Malick had him and Pachner “labor morning til evening, living like peasants”, adding that he “loved it”.

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August Diehl at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

The film, Diehl believes contains the “simplicity and feeling, what is right, what is wrong” adding this feeling is something we lose when we grow up. Diehl added that the power of the film “catches me”.

Pachner spoke of being drawn to portray Franziska because of her “increasingly powerful, unconditional love” toward her husband as well as her support, feeling Franz’s crucial decision was right.


Valerie Pachner at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

In describing the unorthodox filming style of director Terrence Malick who also wrote the screenplay, Diehl said Malick had a script on paper and threw it away. He said that while living on a farm, the actors would get a filming description for that day. There was not a real daily shot list. Diehl described their efforts as a “small group making a movie”. Malick would “ask what we want to tell”, giving his actors “complete trust”. Diehl said while making this film, he was “giving up acting in the normal way”.

Pachner added that a ‘freedom of ideas” was created by Malick. He had sent actors information on the characters being portrayed. She said Malick was “open to what we contribute” and that surprise was encouraged.

Telluride 46: Scorsese on Varda

The highlight of recent film festival-going was seeing Martin Scorsese speak about Agnès Varda before a showing at the Telluride Film Festival of her last film, the marvelous “Varda by Agnès” which covers her long career. Varda, called the “godmother of the French New Wave” died March 29, 2019 at the age of 90. Scorsese appeared with a panel that included Varda’s children Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy.

Martin Scorsese said that being at the Festival to speak about Agnès Varda before her last film was an “honor for all of us and Agnès.” Scorsese said he met Varda at the Telluride film Festival in 1977 when both she and Michael Powell (“The Red Shoes”) a favorite filmmaker of Scorsese, received Tributes. Scorsese and Varda became long-time friends.


Martin Scorsese at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Scorsese considered Varda “One of the gods” of the cinema. He said they would often meet to talk. He said it was “touching” that she would “seek me out”. He said at the last time they met at his house while he was editing “Silence” (2016), they talked about ailments.

Agnès Varda continued to have a charming way to describe things, even her aging. When she was 88, Varda said she had lost lots of memories. She compared the memories to butterflies that had flown away, making her lighter.

Scorsese said Varda’s long and varied artistic career made her a “wonder to me”. He added he “wanted her approval” and that she would sometimes “gently scold” him, being “not happy with (his) ‘Kundun’ (1997)”. He once asked her “Don’t you like my new ones?”


Martin Scorsese at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Varda came to the opening party for Scorsese’s 2013 “The Wolf of Wall Street” wearing high currency US bills pinned to her garment. She didn’t say what she thought of the film. Varda watched Scorsese shoot “The Irishman”. When he told her the length of the script for the eventual 3 ½ hour film, she replied “Why do you do these things?…you can’t do these things…too much!”

Scorsese described himself as gaining “inspiration from her”, from Varda’s openness to trying new media, moving into photography, film, digital and installations. For her, he said there were “no rules”. He added that Varda reinvented film and documentary. He found her work “transcendent”.

Scorsese said that throughout her life, there was a “special vitality” in Agnès Varda. She received an Honorary Academy Award in 2017.


Agnès Varda in “Varda by Agnès”

In “Varda by Agnès”, Agnès Varda reviews her remarkable career with unique humor and insights. She has the inimitable appearance of a white circle of hair on top with dark hair below.

Agnès Varda had a background in photography. Her second film “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1961) follows a woman (Corinne Marchand) waking through Paris as she waits for the results of a medical diagnosis. Documentary-like shots of Paris effectively convey Cleo’s movement as she ponders her future. In the documentary, Varda says she wanted to “film close to me on streets, what I know”.

Varda talks about her marriage to director Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) and their time in the US when they came to California when Demy filmed “Model Shop” (!969). She made documentaries on subjects ranging from wall murals in Los Angeles to the Black Panthers. She speaks of being freed by the camera.

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Agnès Varda with posters of her films in “Varda by Agnès”

One of Varda’s most acclaimed works is “Vagabond” (1985). The film flashes back from the corpse of a young woman in a ditch to the woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) drifting through the countryside. Varda says the character’s anger keeps her alone. In a clever sequence, Varda demonstrates the moving equipment used to create the film’s tracking shots. She speaks on-camera with Bonnaire about “Vagabond”

Demy died in 1991. Varda shows clips of her cinematic tribute to him, ”Jacquot de Nantes” (1991) that includes a recreation of his childhood.

Film is shown of Varda directing Catherine Deneuve and Robert De Niro as they float in a small craft in “One Hundred and One Nights” (1995). Varda describes her film with a cast of international stars as a “disaster.”

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Agnès Varda in “Varda by Agnès”

The poignant documentary “The Gleaners and I” (2000) demonstrates Varda’s continued keen interest in the people she encounters. The film covers those who collect food and objects thrown away. One scene shows the picking up of potatoes discarded because they are not of the correct size or condition. Varda delights in a heart-shaped potato.

Varda retained a curiosity and openness to new methods throughout her career. She created installation art combining film and photography or what she called “reality and representation”. One installation was a hut with walls made from rolls of film of one of her early efforts, a creative reuse.

The enthusiasm and delight that Varda found throughout her life is infectiously suffused in “Varda by Agnès”, a memorable farewell from a great artist.

Telluride 46: “The Report”

“The Report” is a gripping film based on the true story of Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the Senate staffer heading the investigation of the CIA’s torture program after 9/11. Jones spent 6 very consuming years uncovering details of the CIA behavior toward prisoners. Jones and other investigators were told to keep personal feelings out of their findings.

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Adam Driver in “The Report”

Adam Driver is impressive as Jones, giving Jones a passionate intensity as with dogged determination he becomes obsessed with finding the truth while facing resistance from the CIA and government officials. He uncovers that psychologists with dubious theories were highly paid by the US Government. Evidence is found of a man being waterboarded 183 times without providing any new truthful information. The CIA program yielded no new accurate information.

Annette Bening gives a standout supporting performance and is a forceful presence as Senator Dianne Feinstein who assigned Jones to investigate the torture program. Scott Z. Burns (writer of “The Informant” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”), director and writer of “The Report”, gives the film a taut tension with an ensemble of notable performances while showing the costs of the CIA programs. A policy is described as “only legal if it works”.

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Annette Bening in “The Report”

Feinstein and Jones also face surprising resistance to reporting the facts from the Obama White House, led by Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). The Administration is afraid of looking partisan by acting against the previous Bush administration.

After the screening, Scott Z. Burns, participated in a Q&A with Adam Driver and Daniel Jones, whom Driver portrayed in “The Report”.


Adam Driver at Telluride

Burns described his film as telling the tale of a “guy finding facts, struggling to do work”. He wanted “The Report” to be like the thrillers of the 1970s providing “learning…not vitamins”. He added that we “need artists helping get stories out”.

Burns was not sure that he could shoot the film in 26 days, but he did after $8 million was raised. He said the smooth shooting was due to “the incredible talent of actors who know what to do”. He added that because the actors came to work prepared, he could shoot with 2 or 3 takes.


Daniel Jones at Telluride

Adam Driver said he was “excited” by the “fast and furious” style of filmmaking that gave “The Report” an” urgency” and a “drive”.

Daniel Jones said “The Report” did “an incredible job” in telling his story. He described himself as a “data nerd”, tying to “geek out the details”.

Driver added that the film provides a “visual reference” and a “great opportunity” to show “in a human way what happened” and to provide “accountability”.

Three Rivers Film Festival: “Beanpole”, “Eboli” and more

Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Film Festival, my favorite annual Pittsburgh cultural event, will run November 8 – 23.

I saw one of the films, “Beanpole”, Russia’s Oscar submission, at the Telluride Film Festival.  “Beanpole” is an absorbing and harrowing look at two female army veterans struggling in post-WW2 Russia. The film takes place the first autumn after the war in a Leningrad, a city described as a place of shortages where “all dogs have been eaten.”


Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole”

Director Kantemir Balagov, who received a director award at Cannes, gives the film a vivid atmosphere of a devastated city and the bleak lives of its citizens. Balagov makes a notable use of light and shadows, to document lives lived largely in darkness. The film also received a Critics’ Prize.

Ilya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse, is nicknamed Beanpole because of her height. She is reunited with Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a decorated hero. Both actresses have expressive faces that convey the harshness from enduring continual hardships. The two women hold onto their friendship as a rare stability in their lives as they deal with PTSD, continued exhaustion and occasional furtive sex.


Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilia Perelygina in “Beanpole”

“Beanpole” shows Sunday 11/10 @ 8PM, and Thursday 11/21 @ 9PM, Regent Square Theater.

The Festival will also screen the Pittsburgh premiere of the complete, uncut version of “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, directed by Francesco Rosi. I saw the shorter version of the film on TCM and definitely want to see the complete version. I wrote this on a film message board on the TCM version:

Absorbing film about a political prisoner in Fascist Italy who is sent to a remote and impoverished mountain village. Gian Maria Volonte is impressive and subtle as the painter trained as a doctor who gradually connects with the simple life of the townspeople. The film becomes a moving and immersive view of life of an isolated area that is unable to remain unaffected by the larger conflicts outside. Much is the film is shot documentary-like with a slow pace reflecting the town’s daily life.


Gian Maria Volonte in “Christ Stopped at Eboli”

“Christ Stopped at Eboli” screens Sunday 11/10 @ 1PM, Regent Square Theater.

The Three Rivers Film Festival opens on Friday 11/8 @7PM, with three choices of opening night films, party included.

Guy Maddin, who has created many unique cinematic experiences, will appear with his latest “The Green Fog”, a re-make of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” using footage from a variety of non-Hitchcock sources, at Regent Square Theater.


“The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” the 1944 documentary from the celebrated William Wyler (“Ben-Hur”) will screen at the Rangos Giant Cinema. Wyler’s daughter Catherine will attend.

The acclaimed gospel documentary “Say Amen, Somebody” will screen at the Harris Theater.

There are several notable films in the schedule.

“Mr. Jones” is the latest from celebrated director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”, “In Darkness”, “The Secret Garden”) whose films have received numerous nominations and awards. This film follows Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist, planning to tackle his next big story – a rapid modernization of the Soviet Union. Following his interview with Stalin in Moscow, he meets a British journalist, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby, “The Crown”). She makes him see that the truth about the Stalinist regime is brutally muffled by Soviet censors. Saturday, 11/9 @ 8PM, Regent Square Theater.

I am particularly looking forward to the Brazilian “Bacurau”, winner of a runner-up prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I have found previous films from director Kleber Mendonca Filho remarkable.


Sonia Braga (c) in “Bacurau”

“Bacurau” has been descried as a “revisionist Western”. A vibrant backcountry Brazilian village finds its sun-drenched day-to-day disturbed when its inhabitants become the targets of a group of armed mercenaries, sent by a corrupt government to divert their water. The perpetrators of this class warfare, however, may have met their match in the fed-up, resourceful denizens of Bacurau. With Sonia Braga. Sunday, 11/10 @8PM Harris Theater and Friday 11/15 @9:15 Regent Square Theater.

“An Elephant Sitting Still” from China has been highly praised. In northern China, several townspeople’s lives intertwine in the course of a single tension-filled day, painting a portrait of a society marked by selfishness. Director Hu Bo released his debut film to critical acclaim and, shortly thereafter, took his life. Sunday 11/17 @1PM, Regent Square Theater.

The Festival closes with 2 silent films on Saturday 11/23 with live accompaniment by the unique Alloy Orchestra: “Black Pirate” with Douglas Fairbanks @3PM and “Gallery of Monsters” about circus performers @ 7PM, both Regent Square Theater.

All Three Rivers Film Festival listings:

Telluride 46: “Parasite” and Bong Joon-ho

The Korean “Parasite”, directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”), received the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The film depicts a poor family struggling in their basement apartment where people urinate outside their window. The father Ki-taek is portrayed by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho. The parents and their son and daughter get a meager income from assembling pizza boxes. In a clever scene, son and daughter run around the apartment trying to illegally connect to the wifi upstairs.

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Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin and Park So-dam in “Parasite”

The son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) accepts an offer by a friend to take the friend’s place as tutor for a wealthy teenage girl. Ki-woo recommends his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), giving her a different identity, to his student’s parents as art teacher for the family’s young boy. Eventually the parents also deviously insinuate themselves as servants into the wealthy Park household.

The new “employees” begin to enjoy the comforts of their new surroundings and chillingly manipulate events to their advantage. The film intriguingly questions who are the real parasites.


Choi Woo-shik in “Parasite”

“Parasite” takes many entertainingly twisted directions with a few surprises best not reveled in advance. The ensemble is effective as the manipulative servants and the clueless rich. As written, the film lacks the character depth of last year’s Palme winner “Shoplifters”, leading to the light-hearted audience reaction to the climactic scene.

Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho discussed their film at Telluride. Bong said you never know when a parasite enters the body. Song said that for the family in which he portrays the patriarch, life is not working out, they are trapped in the social structure.


Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon-ho at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Bong described himself as obsessed over the class struggle and called “Parasite” a propaganda film. He added that class issues are encountered naturally in our daily lives. He believes class is an issue you can’t avoid.

Since he was little, Bong said he has always loved monster films. In “Parasite”, Bong said he wanted to depict monsters we encounter in real life as well as the moments and motives that drive normal people to become monsters. Bong wanted to design so many secrets in the structure of the house where the 2 families live.


Bong Joon-ho at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Song said he is not attracted to the same things as his director so he does not pursue the dark. He believes the duty of the artist is to examine what is beneath the visible part of the iceberg.

Telluride 46: Antonio Banderas and Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory”

“Pain and Glory”, directed and written by Pedro Almodovar, is one of the strongest films of the year and Almodovar’s finest since “Talk to Her” (2002).

Antonio Banderas who received the Best Actor prize at Cannes is exceptional and quite affecting portraying a director based on Almodovar. Banderas deeply conveys the physical and emotional pain weighing down the director as he looks back on his life and confronts people from his past.

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Antonio Banderas in “Pain and Glory”

Almodovar again displays a masterful use of color visuals. The film begins with Banderas’ character Salvador Mallo sitting in a swimming pool. “Pain and Glory” cleverly shows diagrams of sciatica and the other physical ailments the director is living with. He believes that “filming is physical” and is introduced to heroin as a response to his physical suffering.

Mallo is asked to introduce one of his classic films with the film’s star with whom Mallo had a volatile relationship on the set and hasn’t spoken to in decades. Mallo is also reunited with the man with whom he had an intense relationship who now has a wife and children.

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Antonio Banderas and Julieta Serrano in “Pain and Glory”

The film shows the pain of drawing from past for Mallo’s artistic efforts. In flashbacks, Penelope Cruz is a vibrant presence as the director’s mother. Scenes dealing with a long-ago drawing show an important realization of Mallo at an early age. Banderas is very moving in a scene where Mallo makes a frank admission to his now aged mother (Julieta Serrano).

After a screening of the film at the Telluride Film Festival, Antonio Banderas spoke frankly about his work with Almodovar.

Cast in Almodovar‘s first film “Labyrinth of Passion” (1982), Banderas later collaborated with Almodovar in several films including the celebrated “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988). After “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1989), he next worked with Almodover in “The Skin I Live In” (2011).


Antonio Banderas at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Banderas said that when they worked together 9 years ago, it had been 22 years since they collaborated on a film. In rehearsal Banderas described himself as “very cocky” from his Hollywood experience. Almodovar told him “I can’t use” what you learned in Hollywood, and that what was valued by American directors was not valued by him.

Banderas spoke of “continuous” tension as they began shooting, but that the filming became an “exercise” to “be humble”, to “abandon self” in a production where everyone was “linked together”. He had to “recognize the other is right, you’re wrong”. In the end Banderas said “We cried, very emotional”.

Banderas said he changed after a heart attack 3 years ago. Afterwards he became “reflective”, and wanted to clear everything, except to focus only on what is important.


Antonio Banderas at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

He said that “Pain and Glory” is a “very different Almodovar show, a tribute to the incorporeal.” Banderas described Almodovar as meticulous in recreating his residence in “Pain and Glory”, using his own books and colorful memorabilia. He added that the film is filled with little details”. Banderas believes that a close-up is the “way to tell a story”, to “tell more” that when a character is speaking. The film is full of penetrating Banderas close-ups.

Banderas added that Almodovar “worshiped his mother” and was surprised at the frank admission to his mother that the director character gets off his chest in the film.

He said the director called him “Banderas First Take” until “Pain and Glory”. Banderas added that he and Almodovar have a “limited friendship, very private.”

Banderas said that for Almodovar, making the film was a “personal act, we are instruments”. He added that making the autobiographical “Pain and Glory” was “therapeutic” and “had catharsis” for Almodovar, moving the “weights [from the past] out of his shoulders”.