"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" and "Sharp Objects" are this week's picks.
As pictures of Denis Villenueve's long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel "Dune" hit the internet this week, alongside a Vanity Fair cover story on the film's production, I decided to take the plunge. I bought the 188,000-word epic — in hardback, complete with a sweet new cover — and am excited to dig into its world of, from what I understand, outer space drug wars. (Villenueve has called it "Star Wars for adults.") The film is scheduled to be released in December, though we'll see if that holds. I have plenty of time to read it, and that got me thinking.
I wonder if books will become more en vogue again? Depending on how long the pandemic lasts, networks will run out of new TV shows and movies to release, as production on pretty much everything has stopped. But you can still read the book versions of all those movies and mini-series you watched. You can read books of things that were recently optioned, such as "The Devil in the White City," which is being made into a Hulu series produced by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. You can read books that will probably never be optioned, such as "The Overstory," because not everything translates well to the screen.
As both a journalist by trade and a logophile by the grace of God, I should read more than I do. I used to read a lot as a child. "The Hardy Boys," "Harry Potter," "Inkheart," "A Series of Unfortunate Events." I read them all and loved them all. Then around high school, I just … stopped. I got my fill of reading from sports articles or long form journalism pieces. Over the past few years, I've slowly been diving in again — how good is "The Shadow of the Wind," by the way? — and I think this is the time I go all-in. Why not? Movies and TV will always be there too, but there's no reason I can't also read for an hour before I go to bed each night. And because this is supposed to be about binging, there's not many things more bingeable than the world of a 600-page epic.
What I'm saying, I guess, is that reading is good, words are good, and we should all strive to have more books in our lives. (But not at the expense of anything else; I need to keep writing this column, after all.)
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (2019)
Hulu, rated R, 120 minutes
I watched this movie two weeks ago after hearing all my favorite reviewers rave about it for months, saying they could not believe this was not France's pick for Best International Film at the Oscars. (That honor went to "Les Miserables" instead. No, not that "Les Miserables," a different one. You see the problem here.) When it ended, I silently paced my apartment for 60 minutes while texting my friends that they had to watch it right then. It was midnight on a weekday, so no one took me up on the recommendation, but some have since, and they had more or less the same reaction. For fans of real cinema — which, if you're reading this, I assume you are — "Portrait," directed by Céline Sciamma, is as perfect as romance filmmaking gets.
We meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant) as she's teaching a painting class in the 18th century, but it's not long before a painting one of her students pulls out of a closet — the titular painting — brings a flood of memories rushing back, and we are no longer in a painting class but on a boat, then in the water, watching Marianne rescue her painting supplies from the sea as she ventures to a secluded French island in Brittany to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse is getting married soon. The portrait will be a gift to her new husband, an Italian nobleman. Small problem: Héloïse doesn't want to get married. The marriage is being forced by her family. Originally, it was supposed to be Héloïse's sister, but she died tragically, falling from a cliff, perhaps on purpose, so the obligation fell to her.
Héloïse refuses to pose for a portrait, so Marianne must accompany her on walks, posing as a hired friend, while studying her face and painting from memory.
"Portrait" is chiefly a movie about freedom, and the lack thereof that women had. They couldn't love who they wanted. They couldn't even do what they wanted: Héloïse cannot take walks without being watched. She grew up in a convent and thus has never heard real music. She has not read the Greek tragedies. Other women must sneak under the cover of night to have certain surgical procedures done. As Marianne exposes Héloïse to these wonders of the world, these creative freedoms, they begin to fall for each other, becoming the embodiment of freedom itself. Their love is a slow burn, filled at first with longing glances and intimate dialogue before spouting flames hotter than 1,000 suns. "Portrait" is the most intimate movie I have seen in some time, if not ever.
Every aspect of "Portrait" sizzles. The cinematography alone made me literally gasp multiple times. The performances of the two leads are stunning and achingly real, featuring some of the most affecting eye work you will see. The dialogue, written by Sciamma, is obviously lived-in. It is beautiful prose poetry, demonstrating the depth of feelings that arise when two people know each other inside and out. To them, every inch of their bodies is an essential brushstroke in a painting, every tendency and quirk a line in their metaphorical fingerprints.
As much as "Portrait" focuses on the fanning of flames, is also a film about memory, how the thoughts of a former love can be more of a comfort than hanging onto a relationship destined to never be. From the beginning, viewers can infer that the story of Marianne and Héloïse does not end like a fairytale. How it does end absolutely ruined me, using a callback to a pivotal scene and a long, no-cut take as a sledgehammer, demonstrating how powerful and long-lasting the memories of being in love — in wild, chaotic, true love — can be.
"Sharp Objects" (2018)
HBO Go, TV-MA, eight episodes, eight hours of content
For a show that ostensibly is about a bunch of dead girls, solving the murders is surprisingly low on the "Sharp Objects" priority list, with almost no progress made in the case until its final two episodes. I loved that choice, but others who watch shows mainly for plot might not.
The show, based on a Gillian Flynn novel of the same name, instead focuses on Camille Preaker (a transcendent Amy Adams), a St. Louis journalist who travels to her hometown of Wind Gap, Mo., to cover the murders of several teenage girls. Although Wind Gap is a fictional place, it might as well be real. I went to school in Missouri for four years, and towns like Wind Gap litter the state’s rural areas: filled with old money, run by patriarchal perspective and infested with faux midwestern kindness. Camille is affected by all these things, most of which manifest themselves in her mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson). Camille is so scarred from multiple childhood events that she resorts to cutting herself as a form of loathing. The scars that cover Camille’s body — in the form of words her mother and others have scathed her with over the years — are visually and emotionally striking. “Sharp Objects” is a show about generations. Old money families stay rich, people with power keep that power, and traits get passed from mother to daughter — no matter how undesirable.
Within all this chaos is Amma (future mega-star Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s teenage half-sister, who is the angel to Camille’s devil in the eyes of Adora. While Camille was a wild child in high school, Amma prefers to play with her dollhouse and even lets her mother take care of her when she’s sick instead of fighting the attention. At night though … well, let’s say she’s more like Camille than Adora believes.
There’s also John Keene (Taylor John Smith), a high school football player and the brother of one of the murder victims, and Bob Nash (Will Chase), the father of the other. They are both prime suspects because they got too emotional about the murders, and men aren’t supposed to be emotional. (Yes, really. Wind Gap is messed up, y’all.) Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) and Police Chief Bill Vickery (Matt Craven) are also there and more or less incompetent at their jobs, though Willis and Camille do find a certain kinship eventually.
Amma’s relationship with Camille is, to me, the most interesting part of the show. She adores her older sibling but also pushes her buttons to see if she can set her off, to catch a glimpse of the “dangerous” Camille her mother tells her stories about.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Big Little Lies,” “Dallas Buyers Club”) makes his presence known throughout, filling the screen with lightning-quick flashbacks to Camille’s childhood. Figures stand in the headlights of cars. The ghosts of Camille’s past (perhaps literal ones?) are added to the background of different shots. They’re the type of unsettling images you don’t always catch, but once you do, you can’t unsee. The whole show’s vibe is one of unease, like something grisly could happen at any moment.
When the show does get around to solving the murders, trust me, the wait will have been worth it. The series’ final scenes — in particular one three-word plea — have stuck with me since I watched them and forced me to evaluate everything I had watched over the show’s run. That’s what an ending should do: cause a reaction. Mine happened to be a cartoonish jaw drop, one that happened over a few minutes as the show gave one final twist of its knife. It works thematically and visually, and that’s rare.