Vitalina Varela (2019)

Pedro Costa | 2hr 4min

By the time Vitalina Varela’s plane touches down in Lisbon to meet her estranged, terminally ill husband, Joaquim, after years of separation, an apocalyptic decay has set over his dark, decrepit village. To make matters worse, she arrives three days too late – his passing has left a communal grief in its wake that she simply does not feel in the same, uncomplicated way. She sits alone in his crumbling house, speaking to his spirit with bitterness and melancholy in her voice, not so much mourning his death as the loss of the life she once had with him back in Cape Verde, and which he so cruelly ran from before they could even finish building their home together.

Around her, Pedro Costa glacially slips through cinematic paintings of a monochrome world, dimly illuminating its exposed brick, concrete, and rusted steel through harsh spotlights, and crafting a weathered production design that bears a tangibly rough texture. Though the frames of smothering shadows he shapes around her are heavily evocative of Gordon Willis’ darkness-infused cinematography, the heavy vignette effects even more clearly call to mind similar techniques Krzysztof Kieslowski used to powerful effect in A Short Film About Killing.

Frames of darkness eerily enveloping the characters, comparable to the cinematography of Gordon Willis, the ‘Prince of Darkness’.

Costa’s rigorous presentation of such an immersive visual style effectively sets Vitalina Varela up as a work of astounding formal beauty, meticulously rendered through static tableaux that demand patience from its audience. We stand in graffitied alleyways, overgrown gardens, and dilapidated churches, often waiting for characters to enter and inject the scenery with some dynamic life, though often finding instead that their appearances are limited to whispered soliloquys and stiff passages of dialogue. Much like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Costa disconnects his actors entirely from each other, leaving long pauses between each line and staggering their bodies in disjointed formations through a crisp depth of field, reaching far back into his ramshackle sets.

One of the best uses of deep focus in recent film history, building disconnection between characters staggered throughout the scenery.

From the sides of his compositions however, Vitalina Varela squeezes these cramped environments inwards, so much so that it is difficult at times to discern exteriors from interiors. Barred windows frequently become oppressive frames through which we observe Vitalina wandering Lisbon’s rundown infrastructure, trapped by the life her husband has left behind, though occasionally Costa will angle his camera up to capture a cloudy, night sky, tinged with a murky green that faintly colours the murky, earthy tones below.

Perhaps the strongest composition of the film, and one of the best of the decade – the priest caught in these metallic, web-like spokes, framed right in the centre from a low angle in a vignette of light.
Vitalina and the priest are often framed behind rusty, barred windows like these, trapped in a derelict hellhole.
One of the few shots that let the sky dominate, shedding a faint, murky green upon the Portuguese village below.

The cumulative effect of such hypnotic austerity throughout the film is quietly overwhelming, as Costa works through his eerie, distant sound design and expressionistic mise-en-scène to lull us into the same state of mournful despondency that this forlorn woman is suffering. Named after the actress herself upon whom this story is based, Vitalina Varela encourages us to make little distinction between character and performer, thus becoming a strange sort of docudrama which rejects realism and seeks a profound connection to the widow in her loneliest moments. Though visitors drop by to offer their condolences, there is little solace to be found in any of them, as she serves them food and carries out the duties of a loyal wife as if her husband were still alive. She may burn a candle on a small shrine dedicated to his memory, but she holds no personal connection towards this house or the legacy of neglect it imprisons her in.

Solid form in returning to this delicate shot of Vitalina’s tiny shrine devoted to her deceased husband.

In blinding contrast, Costa briefly flashes back a couple of times to the days of the couple’s youth in Cape Verde, where the fruits of their love and collaboration emerge in rare glimpses of daylight. Lighting thus becomes a crucial formal marker of Vitalina’s own journey in this film, representing her hopeful past and later her future as well, as she strives to find resolution in her husband’s passing. In the meantime though, she is honest about the distance she feels from the man who departed this world without explanation for his abandonment, infidelity, and debauchery.

“There is nothing left of that love, of that clarity. I do not trust you in life nor in death.”

There are less than a dozen shots that take place in daylight, and all of them are associated with either Vitalina’s past or future.

The closest thing to a companion that Vitalina finds in this place is its local priest, played by Costa’s regular collaborator, Ventura. This old, frail man has tremors in one hand and can barely carry his own weight without collapsing, but he holds a majestic screen presence with his tall, withering stature nonetheless, lamenting the state of his empty, dusty church. “There is nothing sadder than a priest in this place,” he moans, and yet as Vitalina reveals, he is not some bystander in a moral wasteland. She remembers him from his days in Cape Verde where he refused the baptism of local believers seeking salvation, only to see them all die in a bus crash immediately afterwards. Together, both Vitalina and the priest “share the mourning,” as he puts it. “You lost your husband. I lost my faith in this darkness.”

As Costa segues into his final scenes though, an elegiac cleansing of sorts begins to take form. A biblical storm bursts forth from the overcast skies, pelting down on grimy, corrugated iron roofs, and the priest turns his head upwards, sombrely quoting Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

“Our country is in heaven…”

And yet he has his own addendum for this bible passage as well.

“…But fear can also enter heaven.”

Returning to the opening shot in the final act – a pair of funerals on either end of the narrative.

The spiritual underpinnings of Costa’s work here are elusive and mysterious, and yet there is great catharsis to be found in the final scenes of daylight, as the priest conducts Joaquim’s funeral one more time for Vitalina alone. “There will be no more death, nor mourning, nor pain,” he preaches, and we would like to believe that there is indeed power in what he says beyond mere self-assurance of a bright future. If we are to find hope here at all though, perhaps it is in the closing flashback of Vitalina and Joaquim’s half-constructed house in Cape Verde, offering far greater comfort than the Portuguese shack they will be both inevitably reside in. Costa does not promise his viewers an easy experience peeling back the layers of Vitalina Varela’s solemn visual poetry, and yet the heavy grief that bleeds out into his world of neglected gardens, streets, and sewers is rendered with an uncomfortable sincerity, and starkly illuminated with abstract, melancholic sensitivities.

Daylight again in the final shots. While Costa thrives in darkness, he works just as well in these visually lighter scenes.

Vitalina Varela is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Waves (2019)

Trey Edward Shults | 2hr 15min

Oftentimes when tragedy strikes, life can feel as if it is divided into two distinct periods of before and after, and it is exactly this turning point upon which Trey Edward Shults pivots the rich character drama of Waves. There is a hint of heartbreak in the Williams family’s past with Tyler and Emily’s biological mother having passed away from a drug overdose when they were young, and though this may indicate the presence of some underlying trauma ready to spill out again in a different form, so too does it reveal the resilience of this family unit in building themselves back up from the deep pits of grief. Especially with their father, Ronald, remarrying Catherine, a woman who loves the children like her own, things look about as stable as ever, pulling us along a thread of lingering hope all the way through Shults’ steady, introspective examination of Tyler’s troubled mind. It is along this emotional trajectory that the camera energetically flies with its characters, reaching joyous heights that spin in cars to upbeat pop music, and sink to shameful lows that hang obscurely on the back of their heads, refusing to let even their most reprehensible actions shake it from its unwavering empathetic perspective.

Energetic 360-degree camera pans in cars, spinning around as if dancing to the music with the characters.
Shults begins to hang his camera on the back of Tyler’s head as we are steadily distanced from him, and he grows more isolated.

Shults is patient with his world building through the first half of Waves, sitting with the Williams family through all their modest interactions across dinner tables, diners, school gymnasiums, and workplaces, where a portrait of comfortable routine and subtle interruptions delicately forms. Perhaps just as astounding as his spirited camerawork rolling briskly through each of these environments with inspired vigour is his thorough dedication to the dual colour scheme that formally connects the calm, gentle security of everyday life to the simmering violence fighting for dominance. Though it is the soothing blue hues which dominates much of the film’s first half in Kieslowski-style palettes, gorgeously washing a romantic beach scene in a cool, natural light and representing the home colours of Tyler’s school wrestling team, a visual conflict is set up early on in his bedroom. As we energetically pan around the space, we recognise that much like the other settings we have entered so far, almost everything from the walls to the bedsheets is dyed some shade of blue, until we reach his curtains which slash two translucent lines of red down either side of a turquoise strip of fabric.

Blue in Tyler’s school gymnasium, where is most at home. Absolute dedication to a colour palette from Shults, much like Kieslowki before him.
Two thin red strips of fabric framing the window in Tyler’s room – totally integral to the formal progression of his character and visual style.

Bit by bit, as pressure begins to mount on Tyler in various directions, Shults’ blue lens flares and décor slip out of his beautifully curated designs, and angry reds begin to dominate. Ronald is far from an abusive father, and yet there is the question of whether he is pushing his son a little too hard to succeed, especially when Tyler unwisely decides that his diagnosed SLAP tear should be kept secret and simply treated with painkillers. This only feeds into other unhealthy habits that continue to degrade his mental state, as a trip to a liquor store vibrantly shocks us into a scene lit with aggressive crimson hues, and later at a party he is framed behind the flames of a raging bonfire. Just as concerning is his choice to keep wrestling and damaging his body, with his struggling athletic performance against a rival school set inside a vibrant, red gymnasium.

The first shot in the film where red dominates, as Tyler enters a liquor store right after being diagnosed with a SLAP tear. A gorgeously placed long dissolve too into the blue close-up of the bottle being poured.
The rival team’s gym is almost entirely red, once again setting up a conflict with the blue gym we are used to seeing Tyler practice in.
Warm fire blazing in the foreground over Tyler’s face at a party – a hellish image.

Throughout this spiralling, the tender love that has persisted through even the characters’ worst fights starts to fade, eventually hitting rock bottom when Tyler’s girlfriend, Alexis, decides to keep their baby she has accidentally fallen pregnant with. Where our compassion turns into outright fear for those around him comes at a house party following their breakup, where we follow his search for his now ex-girlfriend in a long take lasting several minutes. As he doggedly moves through the house, Shults swathes him in neon red lighting looking straight out of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, formally melding his vibrant style and narrative at Waves’ devastating climactic midpoint.

Vibrant neon lighting like Nicolas Winding Refn as we reach the devastating midpoint of Waves, drawing an expressionistic contrast between the colours while we hang behind him in one long tracking shot.

It is hard to regain our bearings immediately following Tyler’s outburst of violence, as a cut to black fleetingly detaches us from the shock of the moment, only to return us a few seconds later to his horrified face and Alexis’s head bleeding out on the ground. Suddenly, the world feels a lot smaller – quite literally, given that the aspect ratio has shrunk to a narrow box, containing shattering close-ups within stifling frames. Shults’ pop and hip-hop soundtrack gives way to a distorted electronic sound design, and as we frantically intercut between Tyler’s escape, his father’s desperate search, and the arriving police, flashing emergency lights swallow them all into a tunnel of despair.

A change in aspect ratio as the world closes in around us, now fully consuming Tyler in the flashing emergency lights…
…And then a smooth transition into Emily’s perspective, formally splitting Waves into two halves separated by tragedy.

Though it is Tyler we follow into it, locked up in the backseat of the squad car, it is Emily we observe coming out, being driven to her brother’s sentencing. The transition here is slick and seamless, and it is especially significant given the switch of perspective it represents, cutting the film in two halves. Even as we sit in court, Shults deliberately avoids showing Tyler’s face, severing us entirely from his side of the story and instead keeping us firmly in Emily’s traumatised, confused mind. From this point on, she is the one the camera sits with in lonely close-ups, tracking her through school where she is forced to hear the things people say about him and suffer the silent judgement that comes with being his sister. Gone is the pop soundtrack, which is now replaced by a gentle piano score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and with this more soothing soundscape Shults works back in his blue palette, now distinctly more poignant than before.

Back home, fresh wounds keep ripping themselves back open with each fight, as Emily’s parent’s struggle to reconcile their different grieving processes. As we sit in her point-of-view watching them through the bedroom door, Shults’ camera steadily zooms in on Catherine’s broken face for several minutes before shifting to Ronald’s teary face in the final seconds, leaving us torn between both sides of this emotional distress. Emily, meanwhile, cannot find the energy to fight with her loved ones. She is full of rage, and she directs it all towards the brother whose actions she cannot easily reconcile with their old, loving relationship. The easy option is to label him an evil monster, but as Ronald reminds her, he is simply a human being. To hang onto that hate is to deny herself any healing.

A long take that simply zooms in on Catherine’s broken face for several minutes, watching this argument unfold from Emily’s perspective in the next room over.

Then into her life walks Luke, one of Tyler’s old wrestling teammates. He is kind and open, though given the circumstances, she is understandably wary. As Waves gains some distance from the tragedy at its centre, Shults progressively winds it back down with a decelerating pace that falls back into the lyrical montage editing from earlier in the film. Not long after, the upbeat rhythms of Tame Impala and Kanye West join back in, and at the point that Emily finally decides to open herself up again, the aspect ratio changes yet again, though this time into a widescreen format that lays her whole world out before us. This manipulation of frame proportions to reflect the internal life of characters is not unlike that which Xavier Dolan experimented with in Mommy five years earlier, but Shults’ use of this device fluctuates even more significantly, as Emily’s decision to help Luke make amends with his estranged, dying father eventually sees a resurrection of the full-screen aspect ratio from the start, and with it, a return to stability.

Another shift in aspect ratio, this time marking Emily’s conscious decision to embrace new beginnings. There are few directors who experiment so freely with this device – Wes Anderson and Xavier Dolan comparisons come to mind.

Shults wields a dextrous hand over the symmetry of his film, not just in balancing out the joy and the tragedy in his drama, but it is even within its narrative structure and colours, always ready counterpoint one emotion with its inverse. As such, a rich duality of identities, relationships, and emotional journeys is baked deep into the formal construction of Waves, though as its title suggests, these characters’ lives will forever be an oscillation between extremes, rising and dipping like the gorgeous blue ocean we delicately hover over, watching a couple whose imminent suffering will in turn give birth to new love.

Colourful lens flares heavily evoke Punch Drunk Love, slipping us into a haze through dreamy transitions.

Waves is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Midsommar (2019)

Ari Aster | 2hr 20min

At the heart of Midsommar there are two monsters in direct opposition to each other, fighting it out over the soul of a woman searching for meaningful stability. Traumatic grief haunts psychology student Dani following the murder-suicide that killed her entire family in one swift burst of depressive violence. The prospect of recovering from such a life-shattering tragedy seems impossible, and this is only backed up by the crushing visual darkness that dominates the first act of the film where the origins of her agony unfold. The opening minute lands us in chilly snowscapes sinking into a bleak gloominess, chilling us with the frosty isolation that defines Dani’s desolate world, and not long after, the flashing red lights of fire engines dimly illuminate a group of rescuers following a pipe leading from a carbon monoxide-filled garage into the bedrooms upstairs. The strings in Bobby Krlic’s agitated score wail like human cries, matching the awful, guttural sobs that erupt deep from within Florence Pugh’s chest. Nothing but the curious tapestry that lingers in the film’s very first shot hints at any sort of potential escape from the suffocating darkness, with each of its four panels painting out separate acts of Dani’s imminent journey, as if transcribed and prophesied in Hårga mythology.

Solid form set right from the opening shot, setting the tone of the murals and foreshadowing Dani’s journey inscribed into Hårga mythology.
Frosty scenery in America, setting the tone of Dani’s desolate world.
Devastating tragedy revealed in long tracking shots and dissolves, the red flashing lights of the emergency vehicles ominously illuminating the darkness.

And indeed, there is a light beyond this frightening shadow, bright and dazzling in its psychedelic radiance, and therein lies the second monster of Midsommar, welcoming Dani into its open arms. The Swedish commune that she is invited to visit with her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian, and his friends could not be more culturally distinct from the cold, dark America she is familiar with, where Ari Aster’s staging is always keenly in tune with his characters’ frigidity. Dani’s relationships are frequently fragmented through mirrors and reflective surfaces that split characters into individual frames, and eye contact is scarcely found. Awkward silences and attempts to cover them up with excuses distinguish the nervous pacing of these scenes set in America, and it is especially notable that the only person offering any kind of emotional support is Swedish exchange student Pelle.

Dani and Christian’s reflections behind the rest of the group back in America, fracturing their relationships.
A bold move from Aster in tracking his camera along this road and flipping it upside down, bringing us into the upside-down reversal of everything we are familiar with – dark to light, disconnection to unity, modernity to tradition.
The camera pans and wanders through this seemingly utopian village, basking in its picturesque scenery – green with lush grass and white with linen clothing.

From the moment Aster tilts his camera upside down in an elegant tracking shot transporting us into the world of the Hårga though, a shift takes place on virtually every stylistic level. Our first impressions of this community suggest a fantastical utopia, as the camera pans and wanders in long takes through green landscapes dotted by villagers dressed in white linen, pastel flowers, and rustic, wooden buildings, and these visuals are accompanied by a small troupe of musicians playing gentle melodies on recorders. The silences shared between members of the commune are not grating, but rather linger in lovingly affectionate hugs, and Aster’s blocking takes a hard turn from icy division towards robust, collective unity. When the Hårga dance, they hold hands and gleefully run in concentric circles around a maypole, and even the camera joins in their wild jubilation. When they are still, Aster will often stage up to a hundred extras in rigid formations, seating them along lengthy feast tables symmetrically assembled in the shape of ancient runes, or arranging them through layers of the shot as they collectively shriek and yell, sharing each other’s pain.

Recurring overhead shots paint out a unity in the patterns these crowds form.
Rigidly staged ensembles from Aster creating gorgeous symmetries and visual composition, topping his already stunning debut in Hereditary.
Dazzling white light shone across this daunting set piece.

And of course all through this quaint commune of ancient rituals and modest living, Aster rarely lets his bright, shimmering light fade, piercing every shadow and bouncing it off pure white surfaces to diffuse it into a blinding atmospheric glare. In this part of Sweden and at this time of year, the sun stays up for 22 hours a day, barely dipping below the horizon, and simply this key fact of the environment sets up a strong formal relationship with Dani’s past which is conversely soaked in darkness.

Such all-consuming brightness is integral to Aster’s ravishing imagery that refuses to shy away from the more grotesque customs performed by the Hårga, including the ritualistic senicide and the gruesome blood eagle execution that manifests as a sort of body horror art. Even beyond its grisly atrocities though, Midsommar does not so much play on the terror of the unknown as it does on the subtly unnerving distortion of the familiar, pulling its characters into psychedelic trips that let flowers breathe with life and out-of-focus backgrounds subtly liquefy like a rippling lake.

Body horror art and thoroughly researched ancient practices in the blood eagle execution.

It is also in these hallucinogenic highs that Aster complements Dani’s arc of acceptance into the Hårga with a lush, visual metamorphosis. Not long after she arrives and ingests mushrooms with her fellow travellers, Aster staggers their bodies on the side of a hill in a Kurosawa-like composition, and idly pushes his camera forward until it settles on a delirious close-up of her hand becoming one with the grass. Later, a similar illusion of her feet sprouting greenery emerges amid communal celebrations, as if absorbing her into the earth, though the evidence of her assimilation is not just confined to these visions. The flower crowns that adorn the head of the Hårga and its visitors establish a powerful connection to the natural world, and one that singles Dani out as being unusually susceptible to its influences. As Midsommar winds towards its disturbing finish, she keeps taking on larger, more elaborate floral embellishments, until she has effectively become a green, flowered monstrosity, consumed by her new identity as May Queen.

A Kurosawa-like composition in the blocking of bodies as parallel lines in the mise-en-scène, with the camera skilfully tracking forward to rest on Dani’s hallucination.
A metamorphosis leading from mere hallucinations into this floral monstrosity as Dani is consumed by the Hårga, equally reflected in Florence Pugh’s anguished performance.

The clash between the disrespect of the foreigners and the traditions of the Hårga is not one Dani engages with to any major extent, though it is this tension which defines her steady slide away from her old loyalties towards her new ones. While two visiting Londoners react with noisy disgust at the ritual suicides of the village elders, Aster disappears inside Dani’s dazed mind that instinctively disconnects her from her surroundings, horrified but not entirely resistant to the way the commune willingly accepts death as part of its customs. Later, one of Christian’s friends urinates on an ancestral tree, and another takes photos of an artefact he is specifically instructed not to. If there was any remaining doubt to Aster’s distinction between the foreigners and the Hårga, he even names Dani’s boyfriend Christian in direct opposition to their paganism.

There is no such thing as sanctity in the society these Americans hail from, and as such there is an inherent mismatch between their insensitivity and the Hårga whose entire culture revolves around natural cycles and displays of collective compassion, whether those be the metaphorical seasons used to distinguish the stages of a human life or the rhythmic howling that accompanies Dani mid-panic attack. Even in smaller formal choices, Aster is building out a world thick with tradition, with the villagers giving short, sharp exhalations as an adrenaline boost. Most curious of all though is the way he lingers on painted murals of ancient symbols, procedures, and stories much like the one in the opening shot, evoking Krzysztof Kieslowski’s own iconographic cutaways that carry symbolic significance and foreshadow narrative developments.

The camera lingering on the painted iconography in this Sistine Chapel shot, gliding past its rafters.
Foreshadowing in the Hårga tapestries, lacing clues through the rest of the film of a strange love potion in the making.

The pulsating rhythms Aster weaves through Midsommar are so intoxicatingly enigmatic that it is hard not to think of the Hårga’s practices when one woman offers Christian a drugged drink which she explains “breaks down the defences and opens you to the influences.” Being a lost woman in search of human connection, there are few emotional barriers keep Dani from being fully swayed by their hypnotic thrall, and while we might find ourselves conflicted over the glorious final minutes of Midsommar, we too find ourselves swept away by the majestic destruction of her toxic relationship.

Even a conscious recognition that cults operate on false displays of empathy and promises of unending happiness is not enough to counteract the resplendent effect of Krlic’s ethereal strings and tinkling percussion, harmonising with the villagers’ chants and screams to rise to a shimmering crescendo. Never mind that the Hårga are indefensibly responsible for traumatising Dani a second time in forcing a mating ritual upon her boyfriend, or that they joyfully engage in some truly horrific practices. Finally, she is smiling for what seems like the first time in the entire film, and as Aster dissolves a close-up of her face over the sight of the ugly pieces of her old life going up in flames, he delivers one final, sinister set piece of spiritual catharsis, celebrating the liberation found in the disturbing confines of the only true community she has ever known.

One of the great endings of the decade, not unlike that of Hereditary though with a gorgeous long dissolve layering Dani’s face over the sacrificial offering of her past.

Midsommar is currently streaming on Netflix and Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

The Souvenir (2019)

Joanna Hogg | 1hr 48min

Any clear-minded person can see that Julie and Anthony don’t make sense as a couple. One is an insecure though ambitious film student, trying to figure out what she can contribute to society beyond her own privileged background. The other is a haughty intellectual, slightly more experienced, but thinly concealing an innate brokenness. Through the casual conversations, dinner parties, student film shoots, and interviews of The Souvenir, Hogg studies both characters with a keen eye. It is a testament to her thoughtful screenplay and Tom Burke’s restrained performance that we are still holding onto a shred of pity for Anthony by the end, but given the autobiographical angle from which she is approaching this story, it is also clear that Julie is the one whom she looks upon with the greatest empathy and affection. Though Julie is a woman not yet fully sure of the space she inhabits in the world, Hogg quietly reassures us – she’s getting there, even despite her many blunders and setbacks.

Wide shots are Hogg’s go-to, setting us back from the drama at right angles.

Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, slips into the role of Julie with a modest grace, and much like her mother she carries a cool composure about her, without being so refined as to be inaccessible. Quite fittingly, Tilda plays the mother of Julie as well, Rosalind, and in her few scenes we see a woman with years of wisdom behind her painfully recognising her child’s mistakes, though unable to fully protect her from the consequences. When Julie stays up late for Anthony to arrive one night, Rosalind is there to take over and let her daughter sleep peacefully. The gentle sorrow she projects when Julie wakes is heartbreaking. Bad news has arrived, and she wilfully takes on the responsibility of being the one to ease her child into it.

For Julie, her relationship with Anthony is a process of discovering unsavoury behaviours hidden beneath a veneer of ostentatious respectability. At a dinner featuring a cameo from a gleefully alternative Richard Ayoade, the secret of Anthony’s heroin addiction comes to light. After he stages a break-in at their hotel room in Venice and is caught out, he refuses to admit he did anything wrong, even going so far as to gaslight her into believing she is overreacting.

“You’re inviting me to torture you.”

Thoughtful use of interiors to split Julie and Anthony across either side of the frame.

The fact that he is so much more articulate than Julie is frustrating, and yet it is also one of his most attractive qualities. Where she anxiously stumbles trying to justify why she wants to make a film about downtrodden lives so distant from her own experiences, he confidently asserts the value of cinema that separates itself from reality. Where she gets flustered on film shoots and awkwardly bumps into equipment, he carries an air of self-assured stability.

The frequent symmetry of Hogg’s compositions is integral to the framing of this tempestuous relationship, particularly as she shoots her actors through corridors and doorways that open into small, isolated frames. Traces of Yasujiro Ozu are evident in her decision to set her camera back in static wide shots and perpendicular to the actors, as if presenting them like creatures in their natural habitats, but at times it also powerfully diminishes her characters within their surroundings. In a cavernous Venetian room painted with elaborate murals from floor to ceiling, Julie’s breakdown plays out in a mirror on its far side, barely making a mark on the entire image. This fracturing effect is even more potent in the recurring use of a wall-length mirror back at Julie’s apartment, bringing visual layers to compositions that face her away from her guests, or alternatively split the frame down the middle with symmetrical reflections.

Julie’s breakdown in Venice relegated to a small portion of the composition – subtle visual work from Hogg in crafting a story around these characters.
The huge mirror in Julie’s apartment used over and over to form magnificently meaningful compositions, isolating her and fracturing her relationships.

It is a compellingly character-centric aesthetic which Hogg crafts here, so it is somewhat ironic that one of the most affecting shots of The Souvenir is a landscape notable for its lack of any human figures. It returns three times over throughout the film, each time paired with voiceovers of Anthony’s poetic letters, though perhaps most curious aspect is Hogg’s framing of the horizon so far down in the shot that all we can glimpse is the canopy of trees reaching up towards a cloudy sky nearing sunset.

A formal use of this unusual landscape, returning to it over voiceovers of Anthony’s letters.

It is a romanticised vision of a relationship that can only exist when Anthony is absent, though perhaps this is the way he prefers it as well. With one of his letters, he also sends a postcard depicting Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir, from which the film gets its namesake. Within it, a young woman in a pink dress is carving initials into a tree, and we can presume from the letter at her feet that they belong to her lover. Julie thinks she looks sad. Anthony is sure she looks determined. The parallels to their relationship are evident either way, as he continues to live on in those spaces even where he is not physically present. When Hogg finally opens one giant door to the outside world in the magnificent closing shot of the film though, there is a sense of Julie decisively moving on with her life, embracing a world beyond her first love – even if the scars and lessons he left behind never quite fade.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, The Souvenir, used as an effective running motif.
A stunner of a final shot, packed with layers of meaning as Julie enters a new world without Anthony.

The Souvenir is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Céline Sciamma | 2hr 1min

The perspective that Céline Sciamma offers us in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not just that of a spectator viewing a gallery of beautifully delicate paintings, but rather that of the painter themselves, translating every curve and angle of their subject’s visage into its artistic equivalent. That interpretation can only come after an intense study of these details – the contour of the cartilage on an ear, or the way they don’t blink when they are annoyed, as is the case in Marianne’s observation of Héloïse. It is a connection more akin to lovers than a contractor and client, and it is through this lens that such a relationship forms between both women on the distant French island of Brittany.

When Marianne arrives in Héloïse’s life, the young woman of the gentry has already proven herself difficult to capture a likeness of in her refusal to sit still, though her mother is determined for a painting to be completed so that the Milanese nobleman she is betrothed to knows what she looks like. Beyond this island of seaside cliffs and large French manors, it is a world of men that dictates the rules of romance, art, and politics with heavy hands and enormous egos. Besides the glimpses we get of those men who ferry women to and from the isle, this is not the world that Sciamma is interested in depicting. In their absence, a fresh new dynamic begins to form around Marianne and Héloïse, bound not by the oppressive gazes and laws of men, but rather by the slowly expanding limits of their own curiosity.

Seaside cliffs and beaches making for exquisite settings to this blossoming romance, these lovers’ faces and bodies staged beautifully within them.

Not every frame here is seeping with the picturesque imagery its title might express, but as this story gracefully flows along, Sciamma intermittently lands us with the sorts of visual compositions that leap out in their still, expressive beauty. Marianne and Héloïse’s deep red and green dresses imprint against pale blue skies, waves, and interiors, lending their rounded shapes to the elegant poses of both actresses who always seem to be aware of their roles as models for Sciamma’s camera. Where expansive oceans and grassy landscapes open entire worlds to them in exteriors, it is inside the neatly curated mansion that she arranges décor like still-life subjects, offering the women a quiet, pensive retreat.

The blocking and arrangement of bodies with set dressing, evoking the elegance of 18th century European art.
Inventive uses of mirrors, emphasising the artist’s gaze.

One night as the women of this island gather around a bonfire to sing a wildly polyrhythmic chant, Marianne and Héloïse wander over to join them. Though the scene carries visual connotations of a coven gathering to share in something not understood by worldly men, there is not the usual uneasiness often attached to such depictions. In this moment, both our leading women begin to consider the possibility that the freedoms and desires they have experienced aren’t so unique to their own circumstances. The patriarchal view of female relationships as being pagan or demonic does not exist here, and as such these rituals of bonding are able to develop naturally without the typical vilification.

Sciamma’s fascination in the mythologising of gender, love, and art continues to reach out into ancient Greek legends, most significantly touching on the fateful relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice. Together, Marianne, Héloïse, and the housemaid, Sophie, read this story, pondering the tragic decision made by Orpheus towards the end while he is leading his deceased lover out of the underworld, being allowed to take her home as long as he does not turn to look back at her. Though Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not a direct adaptation of this story, it does carefully consider its parallels. Just as a simple gaze can bring an artist and their muse together in a powerfully binding love, so too may it divide them forever.

Artistic interpretations of Orpheus and Eurydice all over this film, including Marianne’s painting that captures the pivotal moment of his turning and loss.

Perhaps then it all comes down the purpose of that gaze. A lover might choose to keep their back turned and preserve this tangible connection, though as Marianne notes, Orpheus “doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Humans may die, but the impression they leave behind in the imagination of an artist lives on in many forms, and it is with this in mind that Sciamma evokes ghostly visions of Héloïse through Marianne’s eyes, as if in anticipation of their eventual separation. Within the conventional heterosexual myth, that choice to be either a lover or a poet is integral to Orpheus’ fate, though as the patriarchal influence of the outside world begins to creep in on Sciamma’s paradise, it is evident that there is no such thing as the lover’s choice for Marianne – as society would have it she must be a poet, forever staring in from the outside, or looking back from the future.

The spectre of Héloïse hanging over this film, an eternal image of her in that moment before Marianne parts from her forever.

As progressive a story as Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be, such skilful layering of narrative archetypes lends classical definitions to its characters, intertwining their passions with the nature of humanity as it has been represented narratively throughout history. All throughout, it comes back to the gazes of lovers and artists, both of which are especially tied together in Sciamma’s magnificent final shot that spends two and a half minutes zooming in on Héloïse’s profile at a live orchestra performance. While we engage with every tear and smile that breaks across her face, the camera remains unbroken and unwavering, offering a gaze which ties two people closely in a single moment in time with a burning passion, and yet which will only go on to survive as a lonely, singular, and eternally youthful impression.

A superb final shot paired with a remarkable performance – an entire story unfolds on Adèle Hanael’s face over two and a half minutes.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Taika Waititi | 1hr 48min

It takes a little while for the humour, sensitivity, and detail of Taika Waititi’s buffoonish Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit to settle in, but once it finds its footing, he effectively pinpoints and skewers the cowardice and superficiality of those hateful regimes which hide behind the trusting innocence of their children. This makes for a particularly effective blend with Waititi’s neatly-arranged, Wes-Anderson-inspired compositions, especially in the visual link back to the khaki utopia of Moonrise Kingdom. Small brown tents, scout uniforms, symmetrical compositions, and slow-motion carry through here into Jojo Rabbit, each of these stylistic elements serving to filter this rotten culture through the naïve eyes of a child.

A Wes Anderson-inspired composition, this could be from Moonrise Kingdom – if not for the swastika.

To dig further into this Anderson influence, there is even a touch of Fantastic Mr Fox in Scarlett Johansson’s characterisation of Rosie Betzler’s mouth click – an endearing sort of parental mannerism that holds little significance other than being a recurring, reassuring sign that everything is ok. In her stylish red-and-white shoes and wide-brimmed hat that sits high up on her head, she is set apart from the rest of Nazi Germany as a woman who refuses to fit into any subservient roles. She is maternal, yes, but not in the same way as someone like Fraulein Rahm, who just keeps pumping out babies to serve her nation. Instead, she shows her motherliness in the genuine care she shows towards her child, even in spite of his politics, as well as the example she sets in her self-confident individuality.

As Rosie Betzler, Scarlett Johansson has the charm and magnetism of a classic Hollywood actress, like an outspoken but graceful Marlene Dietrich type.

I still don’t believe every sketch in Jojo Rabbit hits the mark it is aiming for, most of all those concerning Rebel Wilson. It isn’t saying much that this is her best role to date, likely thanks to Waititi’s direction, although it is evident that she often tries to elevate her jokes above the rest of her dialogue. Waititi’s stupidly funny rendition of an imaginary Hitler does hit the mark in its broad mocking of the fascist leader’s cult of personality, but the comedy of this screenplay usually works best when the actors who are playing “real” characters elegantly understate their punchlines. It is evident that sophistication and cheek of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 black comedy To Be or Not To Be served as inspiration in Waititi’s screenplay, especially given the subject matter and nearly identical similarities between particular gags, and yet Lubitsch comes off slightly better here in landing each of his comedic beats a little more consistently.

Taika Waititi, a comedic force in front of and behind the camera, as well as a great eye for colour palettes and patterns.

As the film’s middle act moves into long stretches of conversation between Jojo and Elsa, the Jewish girl he finds hiding in his wall, the important pieces of character development which take place tend to play on rather repetitive emotional and comedic cues – Jojo making a ridiculous comment about Jews, Elsa teasing him for it, Jojo discovering a bit of her humanity, and the two growing closer. This isn’t to completely undermine the pathos of these scenes, because the poignancy that lies beneath them is indeed moving, but the impact is somewhat softened. 
 
With the bookends of German renditions of pop songs, Waititi musically paints out a social shift away from a culture not unlike the frenzied “Beatlemania” of the 60s and into the celebration of individuality that David Bowie became an icon for in the 70s. As Nazi Germany finally meets its end, Jojo can embrace a world that is calmer, more embracing of idiosyncrasies, and which gives him time outside of shouting slogans to think his own thoughts. Though Waititi’s fine balance of several disparate tones is occasionally tipped a little off-centre, there is no faulting this finale. At last, there is hope that Jojo will develop into a healthy, mature grownup.

Jojo Rabbit is available to stream on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.