Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Fire Will Come
The Critics Academy, a program of Film at Lincoln Center and a venture of Film Comment, is a workshop for aspiring film writers, providing a valuable platform to launch their careers. Throughout the 57th New York Film Festival, Film Comment will be publishing work from young critics taking part in the program.
Fire Will Come (Oliver Laxe, 2019)
The title of Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but in this depiction of rural life in the foggy mountains of Galicia, an autonomous region in northwest Spain, men and their actions cause a much more complicated destruction of their own souls and the land than the raging fire itself. Every attempt at coexistence between man and nature is hard-earned, as the film’s protagonist, Amador (Amador Arias), knows all too well. An arsonist recently released from prison, he returns to his remote village to live with his elderly mother (Benedicta Sánchez) and quietly take care of their cows under the suspicious, hostile looks of the rest of the community. It is an immersive, contemplative experience, stripped-down yet vivid, with a strong sense of place—so much so that when the inevitable threat foreshadowed in the title arrives, the film shifts gears into almost docu-fiction: the characters are directly battling a real wildfire that the filmmakers (led by DP Mauro Herce, shooting here in 16mm) had to wait for over the course of two summers and be trained by local firefighters in order to safely capture. In non-artistic hands, this event would have ended up being used as news footage, but Herce finds the savage poetry in these images, capturing the danger and fury in all their raw scope. With handheld camerawork that provides a rare immediacy to the locals’ battle with the blaze, Herce boldly photographs futility. Starkly contrasted with its grey, dim aftermath, this striking first-hand account of doom remains one of the most visceral festival experiences in recent memory.
Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or–winning Parasite is a film of deceptive first impressions. The down-on-its-luck family at its center uses a clever scam as a Trojan Horse to infiltrate a wealthy businessman’s home, thus enjoying the fleeting, unattainable pleasures of a comfortable existence, and the film initially paints itself as a carefully constructed, amusing satire of social class divide before its sharp edges build to a delirious and bloody climax. Having successfully lied their way into employment by Mr. and Mrs. Park (Sun-kyun Lee and Yeo-jeong Jo), the four members of the Kim family (father Ki-taek, played by Song Kang-ho, mother Chung-sook, played by Hye-jin Jang, son Ki-woo, played by Choi Woo-shik and daughter Ki-jung, played by Park So-dam) navigate a moral labyrinth whose unpredictable chain reaction results in tragedy. During a birthday party for one of the Park children, every secret, prejudice, obsession and resentment is brought to the surface in an almost operatic crescendo of violence, blood and mayhem. It is a testament to Okja editor Jinmo Yang’s skill that this crucial sequence never crosses the line into over-the-top hysteria, but instead conveys the initial suspense and subsequent horror with clinical yet masterful precision. This economical style gives way to a dramatic slowing down to allow for the final blow to be dealt, and for Bong to leave us with memories of murder once more—when, for a few catastrophic moments, everyone is finally, devastatingly equal.
The subtle charms of Céline Sciamma’s picture-perfect Portrait of a Lady on Fire make themselves known slowly and surprisingly, like the finest kind of cinematic romance. But it is the film’s culmination that elevates this story of love, art, and identity forged in the fringes of history into instant classic territory, with one of the most cathartic, heartbreaking instances of “what if…?” ever committed to celluloid. Much like an artist’s urge to create, desire becomes a divine calling for painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her unwitting subject, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), women whose fierce intellect and strong sense of self are suffocated by 18th century conventions, and for whom liberation through sexual desire is a forbidden luxury. Sciamma could have easily been tempted by a Brief Encounter-esque epilogue and deny her characters a fulfilling closure. Instead, she sculpts an exceptional movie moment: as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons plays like a gospel of memory, the camera follows a lover’s gaze and rests on Haenel being engulfed by emotion—it suddenly possesses her like a phantom limb of another life, not lived. In an uninterrupted take, the actress’s face becomes the canvas for a lifetime of sadness, regret and acceptance, as the inevitability of all these feelings washes over her. All praise for the film (which won the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay awards in Cannes) is well-deserved, but it is this single parting shot that will haunt the hearts and minds of viewers long after film festivals, awards season, and this century are over.
Mara Theodoropoulou is a film critic, journalist and programmer at the Athens International Children’s Film Festival. You can Google Translate her writing at Popaganda.gr.