Early in Julie Lopes Curval’s subtle, culturally incisive coming-of-age film High Society, Alice (Ana Girardot) serves middle-aged customer Agnès (Aurélia Petit) while working at a pastry shop. The older woman is a Parisian fashion designer vacationing at her summer home in Alice’s working-class seaside town. Alice confesses her ambitions to study fashion design, and Agnès offers to help with her art-school application—but her assistance is not given in the spirit of egalitarianism. She’s a person of privilege patronizing someone with less.
Alice’s bid for education, which sets her apart from her friends, reflects a desire to distinguish herself from the environment that produced her. This intent is neatly summarized by her artistic practice: insisting on the potential of discarded materials, she transforms them into new garments. During visits to Agnès’s elegant country estate, Alice reveres the art objects that cover the house’s walls and surfaces. She also falls in love with Agnès’s son Antoine (Bastien Bouillon). An aspiring artist, he likewise seeks to escape his upbringing.
The couple’s intense love affair is defined in part by discussions that explore their divergent attitudes toward art. Antoine’s goals as a photographer are lofty, and he is confident of his artist status. Though he turns his back on his privileged background, it has still afforded him a sense of entitlement. Alice is adamant that her work should be utilitarian, and her approach to fashion is as an anonymous tradesperson. She focuses her academic study on embroidery, traditionally a craft rather than a fine art. Though she’s a thoughtful, observant person whose impetus to create perhaps has more organic origins, she has difficulty incorporating symbolism into her needlework, and this inability attests to her unacknowledged belief that beauty, metaphor, and self-expression are the luxuries of a higher social class.
Pairing off with Antoine prods Alice toward a process of self-discovery in which his traits and circumstances act as counterpoints. Reckoning with the self through connection to another is also at the core of Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou. The Austrian writer-director’s fourth feature is a satirical yet sensitive study of the 1811 death pact between poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) and his acquaintance Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink), who cross paths at the intellectual salons hosted by the wealthy denizens of the privileged classes. They’re dull affairs in which participants enact the rigid social mores and prejudices of the era. Henriette knows her place within this social order, listening dutifully, occasionally trilling to a piano accompaniment, and freely acknowledging that she’s her husband’s property. Heinrich meanwhile attends these get-togethers to find a woman to enable his ultimate poetic act, double suicide.
Soon after Heinrich questions the satisfaction she takes from being a wife and mother, Henriette suffers several fainting spells. Her husband summons a doctor who cavalierly diagnoses a fatal tumor (a judgment he eventually and just as heedlessly rescinds), making Henriette the ideal partner for the poet’s plan. Hausner expertly conveys the claustrophobia and inflexibility of this environment by tightly choreographing her characters through carefully composed, sparsely decorated spaces. The film is notable for its atmosphere of charged stillness. The actors are hemmed in by the bold wallpapers, heavy drapes, door jambs, and the occasional piece of furniture that frame the shots, while the camera rests at a medium distance from the action. This visual confinement underscores the lack of intimacy and agency in Henriette’s life. Her longing for escape is understandable. She’s surrounded by men for whom a woman’s life is predicated on silence.
As in Amour Fou, Eugène Green’s La Sapienza interrogates the way in which spaces can be designed to carry emotional and psychological weight. In this case, however, the interiors in question are inspirational rather than repressive since they radiate artistic imperatives of ambition, sacrifice, and, most important, purity of purpose. Rejecting a contemporary culture in which science stands apart from the imprecision of faith or feeling, Green looks to Baroque philosophy and its fecund mix of rationalism and spirituality. Married couple Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), an architect, and Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman), a behaviorist, have grown apart from each other and from their respective professions. Regret has overtaken passion. When Alexandre reaches a bureaucratic impasse over a commissioned project, the two travel to Italy where he reacquaints himself with the work of beloved architect Francesco Borromini.
In Stresa, the pair encounter teenage Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and his sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro). It’s a fortuitous meeting that gradually enables the couple’s revival. Aliénor nurtures Lavinia through an illness, while Alexandre reluctantly chaperones aspiring architect Goffredo through Borromini’s Turin and Rome. The substance and mannered delivery of La Sapienza’s copious, idea-driven dialogue produce a suggestive, dreamlike quality: Goffredo and Lavinia might be apparitions embodying the couple’s younger selves, the children their marriage never produced, or spirit guides leading Alexandre and Aliénor toward enlightenment.
While Green’s film is dense with historical fact and theory, it’s not averse to plumbing life’s mysteries. Suffused with warmth, it expresses a potent admiration for human striving and accomplishment. Goffredo explains that his architectural ambitions spring from the desire to create spaces that accommodate people and transmit light, which he repeatedly invokes in its most symbolic sense—as vision, inspiration, sanctuary, and antidote to darkness.
The camerawork within the Borromini buildings is rhapsodic. As Alexandre explains that the architect employed strict geometries to create a sense of movement, the camera pans horizontally, then sweeps vertically—triumphantly—toward the interiors’ crowning regions. Green’s mise en scène makes the spaces feel alive, both with the history they’ve witnessed and as embodiments of the artist whose aesthetic decisions they harmoniously relay.
National Gallery is yet another comprehensive installment in Frederick Wiseman’s formidable, lifelong study of public institutions. Here he observes every facet of the London museum’s operations and presents an intimate overview of the efforts of all its departments toward a common goal: to assert and ensure the continued relevance of the art-historical past. Curatorial and conservation staff are shown discussing specific works with groups of visitors, helping them to find narrative in a composition or envision the role religious paintings played in a culture vastly different from their own. The film upholds the belief that the commonalities of self-expression, storytelling, and insightful observation reverberate through time.
Wiseman ably affirms the museum’s mission of public service, which calls to mind Mollie Panter-Downes’s World War II dispatches from London for The New Yorker in which she reported that while the National Gallery was forced to relocate its collection for safety reasons, it still sought to provide succor to the populace. Despite rectangular shadows on the walls where paintings once hung, the museum invited London’s residents to gather for lunchtime concerts and companionship instead. This anecdote, and Wiseman’s film, disprove any accusations that the National Gallery sides with elitism.
What’s truly moving about Wiseman’s film is the director’s use of portraiture to convey the museum’s efforts to draw a link between modern people and the artists and subjects who came before them. National Gallery is a movie of faces—those of visitors, upturned and searching across the flat planes of paintings, and those of subjects, noble and otherwise, who look out in their full personhood from the museum’s walls. Wiseman rarely enlarges upon the paintings with historical exposition. All rendered visages, alive and dead, are presented as part of a human continuum. When we see museumgoers scrutinize a painted face, it’s an optimistic act of recognition.