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Cannes Correspondences #12: Portraits of Artists on Fire

From Cannes, reviews of prize-winning films by Pedro Almodóvar's ("Pain and Glory") and Céline Sciamma ("Portrait of a Lady on Fire").
Leonardo Goi
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Pain and Glory
Dear Danny,
Few things feel as sad as the end of a festival, and as I begin to look back at my first year in Cannes, crouched inside a bus that’s gliding past seaside towns, East-bound, the post-Croisette spleen fills the air with the memories of the past two weeks—sounds and images that feel almost unfairly beautiful now the Palais and the festival around it is miles past me already. And while it may still be too early to give in to rankings, of all the great many things I’ve been able to sit down and watch the past couple of weeks, there are two I trust will stay in me longer than any others, two spell-binding moviegoing experiences which, coincidentally, took place on my very last festival day—yesterday.
Three years after his last Cannes bow, Julieta, Pedro Almodóvar returned to the Croisette with his 21st feature and sixth Palme d’Or contender. Auto-fiction is nothing particularly new in the oeuvre of a man who’s devoted his four-decade-plus career to seesaw between truth and artifice, lacing melodramas with autobiographical details (his 2004 Bad Education possibly the most notable example of the trend). But nowhere has Almodóvar’s meta-fictional glance felt more personal, more inwardly-cast and affectionate than it does in his latest, Pain and Glory. A director who’s devoted much of his oeuvre to extend empathy toward countercultures and outcasts, to vindicate a stage where even the misfits could speak up and shine, Pain and Glory allows Almodóvar to carve one for himself. And the result is a profoundly elegiac work celebrating memory and filmmaking as two instruments that are both profoundly therapeutic and indissolubly bound together.
It is as entrancing and ethereal as the reveries of the man at its center, renowned Madrid-based director Salvador Mallo, a man at an emotional and creative standstill played with career-high bravado by one of Almodóvar’s oldest collaborators and muses, Antonio Banderas. Years have passed since the cineaste’s last film, and while the man is unmistakably aware that so much is at stake (“without filming my life is meaningless,” he bursts halfway through) there’s also a certain acceptance in the epiphany, a voluntary surrender. “But if you stop writing films, what will you do?” his assistant asks him, concerned. He shrugs. “Live, I suppose.”
Not that living comes any easier though. Stubbled and crowned with a silvery mop of spiked hair that only adds another layer of Almodóvarish similitude, Salvador suffers from virtually every ailment imaginable—from anxiety to migraines, from tinnitus to a paralyzing back pain. At sixty, he’s the empty shell of the cineaste who, thirty years prior, directed Sabor (Taste), a drama that helped consecrating Salvador as auteur, but also led him to a fallout with lead actor Alberto (Asier Exteandia), a man whose reckless heroine consumption went in the way of the director’s vision. A public screening of the early hit turns into an opportunity for a long overdue reconciliation. Alberto’s addiction hasn’t receded altogether—efforts to quit have been replaced by a dosage-control strategy—and if the unexpected sight of Salvador’s fatigued, pensive face visibly shocks the thespian, Alberto’s surprise isn’t a patch on the dumbfounded look he throws the director after Salvador suggests the two shoot heroin together.
Lulled by the drug, Salvador descends into a world of reveries and flashbacks that intersperse Pain and Glory like snippets from a movie running parallel to his own life (a feeling that thickens until a cathartic and revealing finale). They are the flickering relics of a childhood spent in poverty but lived with indomitable dignity, with preschooler Salvador (played by Asier Flores, a child with preternatural stage presence) trailing behind his mother (Almodóvar’s regular muse Penélope Cruz) as the family struggles to make ends meet while crammed in a cave-like dwelling. In a plot that unfolds as a series of vignettes of chance encounters, the beauty of Pain and Glory resides in its serendipity. To embark in Almodóvar/Salvador’s journey is to ricochet between memories and their random present-day resurfacing. Old lovers show up at the director’s doorstep; some others, older still, inhabit a world of flashbacks which Antxón Gómez’s production design and Paola Torres’ costumes bring back to life in a triumph of vivid palettes.
Pain and Glory is an act of recollection, and a painful one at that. The glory Almodóvar’s title alludes to is hashed out in the past tense, crystallized in Salvador’s gorgeous, art-crammed Madrid apartment (incidentally, Almodóvar’s own), a simulacrum of past triumphs now wrapped in darkness and silence. For this remains a story of suffering, one that dwells on the pain of artistic creation as it is experienced by those who struggle to reconnect to their past through art, and in the process, find some solace from a present marooned in desolating loneliness.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory celebrated its world premiere half way through the festival, along with another main competition entry, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Screenings clashes and unsuccessful queueing meant I could only see both on the festival’s last, catch-up day. And it also meant that the pair arrived wrapped in its own week-old discourse and glowing praises, a buzz that was impossible to escape for two titles that were trumpeted by many to be serious Palme d’Or contenders (neither won, but each film took home a prize). Suffice to say that, if Almodóvar’s met all the expectations, Sciamma’s tale of shattering love surpassed anything I had braced for.
Set in a windswept stretch of coastline in 18th century Brittany, Sciamma’s Portrait zeroes in on Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a blue-blooded twenty-something recently plucked out of a convent, and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a woman of the same age who, unbeknownst to Héloïse, has been hired by the girl’s mother, a widowed Italian countess (Valeria Golino) to paint her portrait. Why on earth the ordeal would be kept secret from the intended recipient is something Sciamma parcels out gradually, as the mysteries around Héloïse grow thicker. Removed from convent after her sister suffered a fatal accident, the girl is heading toward the same fate her sibling was destined to: as a bride-to-be, her portrait is something her mother aims to carry to Milan to cajole an affluent prospective husband into marrying her daughter.
As Marianne and Héloïse become closer, the secrecy around the former’s job finally dispelled in a cathartic heart to heart where the two understand the rigid boundaries of the patriarchy they are up against, the portrait takes on an unbearably tragic dimension. The object that brings the two women together is also the one that will ultimately draw them apart, and there is nothing short of extraordinary in the way Marianne and Héloïse wake up to the realization, in a game of glances and gestures which, away from Héloïse’s mother’s stare, shift from furtive to wanting, as the young women’s relationship veers—and ultimately gives into—a tale of selfless love.
Much like another fulminating gem we had reported on a few days ago, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, Portrait may well zero in on two characters, but there is nothing minimalistic about it. There is a whole life in every small gesture that brings the two girls closer, a whole cauldron of hopes and expectations in that terrified “do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne—the first lover she’s ever had. Gorgeously shot by Claire Mathon, alternating glacial daytime hues with a candlelit palette that don faces the sensual beauty of some Caravaggio paintings, and enriched by Dorothée Guiraud’s costumes, Portrait is a joy for the eyes. It is a film of quiet pleasures that percolates with the sadness of an inevitable goodbye—telegraphed from the opening shot, and still devastatingly powerful when it is finally conjured up.
And it is a film of conversations, a love story between two young women who come to know each other through long chats during windy strolls and painting sessions. And yet none of them, not even the deepest and most intellectually complex of the girl’s exchanges, feels excessively abstract. At the heart of Sciamma’s shattering love story is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and in a pivotal juncture, the girls sit by the fireplace to discuss the reasons that brought the Greek god to turn back to his beloved as she reemerged from Hades, knowing all too well that doing so would make her vanish forever. Watching Haenel turn her face toward the camera after a frantic run to the cliffs, the first time her luminous face graces the screen in a fourth-wall rupture of enthralling magic, the myth rang achingly close to Sciamma’s own tale. That flickering split-second her eyes met the audience, and an entire Debussy theatre held its breath to take it all in—the run, Haenel’s face, her stiff smile, the resonance of that frantic sprint toward the cliffs and the way her run stopped right before the abyss—was very possibly the single most striking sequence I will remember from my time in Cannes this year.
More from me again very soon,


CannesCannes 2019Festival CoveragePedro AlmodóvarCéline SciammaCorrespondences
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