Portrait of a Lady on Fire 2019 ****


The spirit of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse finds a specific echo in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which arrives box-fresh for awards season as a thoroughbred contender; this is art-house fare, but no worse for that, a sumptuous, haunting love story with moments of dynamism and an attitude that’s catnip to the chattering classes.

Rivette, of course, deconstructed the process of creating art in his celebrated four-hour study of sculptor and model; Sciamma takes a similar subject, although in this instance questions of the male gaze are subverted because men are barely seen. Instead, we have the love between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter on a secret mission, to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a remote location (Brittany). But the subject is reluctant; the portrait is to celebrate a prospective marriage, and that marriage is unwanted. Marianne artfully betrays and then gains the trust of her subject by stealing glances and looks to complete her portrait, and then destroying it when Héloïse complains. The relationship between the women blossoms into a lesbian affair, but society intrudes, and the big question is how their love might survive or endure these obstacles?

A subtitled film about portraiture might sound like hard tack, although the surprising presence of Valerie (Hot Shots!) Golinio offers some respite, and there is in fact a literal lady on fire to justify the film’s quirky title. This is a film driven by the luminous performances of the leads, who capture the intensity of a forbidden but natural relationship, and who evoke passion with the smallest movements. The landscapes also spark memories of Jane Campion’s The Piano, but without the sense of melodrama; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not for sensation seekers, but a meditative, visually calculated piece that finds visual metaphors for the inner workings of the two women depicted.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been, alongside Parasite, a clear front runner in the Foreign Picture stakes  since Cannes 2019; despite the adulation of the highbrow critics, it’s a love story that could attract the romantic at heart, and those who have the patience for the genteel pace will be rewarded with a beautifully told story of verboten love.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be on wide release in the UK and US in 2020.

Best Before Death 2019 *****


Anyone who has been following the continuing adventures of Bill Drummond will keenly anticipate Best Before Death, a new documentary which finds the artist, retiring pop star, art terrorist and general free thinker in fine fettle. The standard-issue information on Drummond is that he was a driving force in the KLF, with a slew of number one singles and a notoriety gained by burning a million pounds as a performance art event. Since that event, which Drummond says he now regrets, he’s ploughed a fascinating furrow as a creative force, but not a creative force interested in making work for New York art dealers to sell ; he’s not seeking validation from the elite. In short, Drummond is an ideal subject for a documentary, and Paul Duane’s film, a co-production between Rook Films, Media Ranch and the Scottish Documentary Institute, doesn’t let him down.

The film-makers share space with the artist on two legs of an ongoing global event, the 25 Paintings world tour which is scheduled to take Drummond to various locations from 2014 to 2025. We catch up with him circa 2016 in Kolkata, India and Lexington, North Carolina where he busies himself with tasks; getting a haircut, making soup, building a bed, banging a drum as he crosses a bridge, shining shoes. The public encountered are bemused, but also interested; part of the appeal of what Drummond is doing is not only what these actions might mean to him, but what they might mean to those who happen upon his art by chance. Some are happy to accept his simple gift of a cake; others, notably a driver, can’t get over Drummond’s previous pop career, and eagerly ask if he’s ever worked with Will Smith. It’s clear Drummond is unimpressed with such questioning, but also to his credit that such awkward moments are left in the film to created a rounded picture of what he does.

There’s an element of penance about the behaviour captured here. I interviewed Drummond for a national newspaper a few years back, and he offered to visit readers in their houses and make soup for them; he’s not building walls of mystique but breaking them, although he also voices fears about what that deconstruction might bring. He alludes to personal reasons for his actions; ‘addressing my relationship with women’ is how he terms it, and there’s mention of seven children with four partners.

But such clues are not prescriptive; there’s any number of potential meanings for Drummond’s actions, and Best Before Death is more than the sum of it’s parts. If you question what Drummond is doing, and why, you might as well question your own daily activities and ask if they have more or less meaning. Drummond is a teacher of sorts, a man who leads by example, but doesn’t attempt to be a role model. He pays attention to the signs he sees as he visits a shopping centre café, he experiments with life by listening to music in alphabetical order. Drummond is a fascinating figure, and spending 100 minutes in his company is a refreshing, revitalising experience that’s essential viewing for those familiar with his explorations of spaceship earth, and an ideal introduction to his wonderful world and how he sees it.

Bill Drummond will be touring the UK with Best Before Death, and performing a play, White Saviour Complex, with Tam Dean Burn, alongside each screening.



Le Testament d’Orphee 1961 ****


‘If you don’t like my film, I’m sorry’ Jean Cocteau announces with admirable candor at the end of Le Testament d’Orphee; if only all directors were so blunt. But then again, Jean Cocteau is hardly your average hack; the French poet and surrealist was one of the greatest artistic figures of the 20th century, with film only one of the media he conquered, and this 1961 semi-autobiographical fantasy is something of a curiosity. In today’s world, where sequels often appears decades later, Cocteau’s decision to revisit his 1950’s opus Orphee makes some sense, but it’s only one of a number of angles the artist is working here. Fans of the original were not wowed by Le Testament d’Orphee, but freed from the burden of expectation that goes with sequelitis, there’s a lot going on. Cocteau casts himself as a time-travelling courtier, zapping back and forward through his own life to invent cigarettes so that he can smoke them, and to identify who he really is. ‘I take off my body to reveal my soul’ says Cocteau, attempting to make peace with himself as an artist ‘Aren’t you a pheonixologist?’ he asks himself, hoping for some revival, but his distaste is revealed when he meets and avoids himself coming down a street; ‘I thought when I changed castles, I’d change ghosts’ he laments in a brilliant turn of phrase.  There’s a melange of fashionable names dragged into the phantasmagorical action, from Yul Brynner to Charles Aznavour, and even through subtitles, Cocteau’s knack with words is arresting; cinema, he imagines, is the art of bringing ‘dead acts to life’, and the whole process adds up to a ‘macabre masquerade’. This neglected film is a fitting tribute by a great artist to himself; there’s flashes of magic and genuine insight that make it well worth exhuming, particularly with the helpful mini-features that are included on this 2019 DVD re-release.


The Blood of a Poet 1932 ****


When early American sound cinema was struggling to find more interesting things to film than staid plays from the front row of the stalls, visionaries like Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau were pushing the envelope circa 1930. L’Age d’Or still has a certain notoriety due to a discomforting eye-slitting scene; Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet was being made almost the same time, and is arguably a more successful, less sensational and more coherent film. A series of short vignettes reflect on art and life; an artist finds a mouth growing on his own hand, and attempts to place it within his art, a statue. The same artist makes his way down the corridors of a hotel, climbing the walls and finding living statues within. A snowball fight between children turns tragic when someone throws hard marble instead of soft snow, and an artist’s death arouses applause from a paying audience. Cocteau would revisit the snow-ball fight for Melville’s Les Enfants Terrible, but it’s the most straightforward element here of an experimental film that defies simple explanation. This kind of art is best approached not with a notebook and pen, but allowing the images, rich and personal as they are, to wash over you; the ceramic eyes featured here, and in many of Cocteau’s other films, feel modernist and not dated at all. The best art is timeless, and Cocteau’s inimitable style conferred immediate immortality on himself and his unique world-view. American photographer Lee Miller appears as a statue here; a strange detail, but only one of many in a 55 minute film that still retains a dazzling, mystical allure to this day.

LE SANG D’UN POÊTE (The Blood of a Poet) will be released on DVD, Digital Download and for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK on 5th August 2019 as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage World Cinema Collection.


Orphee 1950 ****


As with La Belle et le Bete, Jean Cocteau’s masterpieces will not grow old; while specific meanings remain obscure, this adaptation of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has a timeless quality. Jean Maris was actor so handsome and robust he makes Kirk Douglas look as weedy as Tom Holland, and he’s ideal as Orphee, a vain poet who leaves his wife behind to visit a fashionable road-side café to hear a recital. There he meets a rival named Cegeste (Edouard Dermit) and when a brawl breaks out, sees him killed and then revived by a mysterious woman who appears to be working for the forces of the underworld, specifically Death (Maria Casares). With his head spinning, Orpheus returns home, but soon loses his wife to the underworld, and must venture forth to get her back. Cocteau’s bag of cinematic tricks gets a good work-out here, with backwards film, inverted negatives, mirrors made of water and talking cars all adding up to a magical environment where anything could and will happen; the most obvious films that lift both mood and iconography from Cocteau are the first two Matrix films. Although made in post WWII France, Orphee is no simple political allegory, and Cocteau was keen to avoid such interpretations; the film’s meaning is, according to Cocteau, exactly what you see. The journey of Orpheus represents the creative process, one that takes away as much as it gives, and the ambiguous ending leaves the viewer to make their own conclusions and judgements without the dots being joined by the film-maker. Perhaps Cocteau’s sequel. Le Testament d’Orphee spells things out too clearly, but this sublime original offers mystery and magic in gloopy, rich black and white images that feel like the fevered opium dream of their esteemed creator.

The Legend of The Holy Drinker 1988 ****


Rutger Hauer’s favourite amongst his own movies was untypical of his output; working with the esteemed Ermanno Olmi of Tree of Wooden Clogs fame, he gives a quiet and understated performance in this adaptation of Joseph Roth’s slim novel. Hauer plays Kartak, a homeless man in 1930’s Paris who is leant money by a stranger (Anthony Quayle) on the condition that he repays it when he can. Of course, that’s not easy for an alcoholic, and his struggle to find the strength within himself to repay the cash has a clear and simple allegorical strength. One of Hauer’s biggest fans, critic Dilys Powell, was horrified by the direction his career took in the 1980’s and 90’s; a decent into B movie hell through random vehicles such as Blind Fury, Salute to the Jugger and Split Second. The Legend of the Holy Drinker was developed for Marcello Mastroianni, then offered to Robert De Niro; no less an actor that either man on his day, Hauer excels as the fabled alcoholic here in this quiet, often wordless film, somewhat ironically given that he was the promotions man for Guinness in a series of expensive adverts at the time.

At Eternity’s Gate 2019 ****


Films about artists have an advantage over any attempt to chronicle the development of a writer; at least we get to see what the artist sees, and the art that they make. Vincent van Gogh’s life has been tackled before, but Julian Schnabel’s film goes for the ‘last days’ route, with the artist poor, ill and ostricised by society. Of course, the audience can see his brilliance, even if the other characters can’t; Schnabel does a neat job in capturing both the dourness of the company and the light of the paintings. But At Eternity’s Gate would be nothing without the presence of Willem Dafoe, who can make something out of nothing, and presented with a substantial role, can conjure an Oscar-nomination from a tiny budget film. The victim of bullies and feral children alike, his van Gogh is a grimly tortured figure, and yet it’s obvious from his conversations with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) that artistic failure has not crushed his humanity. At Eternity’s Gate is a portrait of an artist wronged on all sides, and while Schnabel, working from a screenplay by Jean Claude Carrierre, may play fast and loose with established facts, it makes for a satisfying medidation on the nature of art, artistry and eternity.