Serial Killer with Panache

Directed by Dominic Sena
(US, 1993)
Review by Lois Siegel

If you haven’t seen Kalifornia, you might want to check it out. A film with strong production values about a serial killer, and violence tastefully done? You decide.

The film stars Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, Kathy Larson and Michelle Forbes. Dominic Sena creates a little masterpiece which provokes the same excitement we felt when we first saw Blood Simple by the Coen brothers. We knew there was something new and unusual about their film. Sena, too, has something special, and you’d better be ready for anything because Kalifornia, isn’t a leisurely trek out West.

It drags the desolate countryside along and makes us feel what goes on as we ride.

There is a bit of voyeur in all of us. Most of us confine our urges to watching curiosities in the safety of our living rooms on TV. A few of us vicariously satisfy our inquisitiveness through our occupations. We decide to make a living exploring what we don’t know. But an exploration into the unknown can be dangerous.

In Kalifornia, a young couple sets out to make some money by producing a book on serial killers. But like all innocent-victim movies, the hunters soon become the hunted, and the ingenuous become targets of the perverse. The theme of the film may be similar to other victim movies, but the content and execution certainly are not.

Academia meets poor white trash. Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) is conducting a study of serial killers. The earring he wears indicates his willingness to explore beyond accepted norms – he’s cool.

His more upright girlfriend, Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), is a photographer, but she has a kinky edge because her photos hint at pornography. Brian convinces her to take pictures of the places where grisly murders were committed as he records the gory details of the slaughters on his tape recorder. She agrees only because their destination is California, a place with hope for a new future; where they live now is an eastern small town, and it’s hopeless.

Brian places a little note on the university bulletin board looking for someone to share expenses. Enter Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his “mama” girlfriend Adele Comers (Juliette Lewis). Early makes poor white trash seem like a compliment. The two couples represent the extremes of Emily Post etiquette: Eat with a fork versus clean your toes at the dinner table.

Early also has the habit of digging graves for people who insult him. His other pastimes include dropping gigantic boulders from overpasses onto passing cars late at night “just for the fun of it.” Early Grayce is a serial killer with character so no matter how much you don’t like what he does, you still find him fascinating. He’s extremely out of place in the world. Early’s sidekick, Adele, tries her best, but she’s a bit dense. Her dumbness becomes her charm.

Kalifornia, as the misspelling of the state suggests, is a misadventure, and only a few come out alive. The film received the Best Artists Contribution award at The Montreal World Film Festival

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Available: Please note: There are now great older films available on Amazon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Directed by Céline Sciamma
(France, 2019)
Review by Paul Green

Directed by Céline Sciamma – feminist, lesbian and filmmaker extraordinaire who works only in France – Portrait (French title: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a film about women, art and the female gaze. It is also a many-layered examination of the creative process.

In a brief sequence that serves as prologue, a young artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is instructing an art class when she observes that one of her female charges has been looking at some of Marianne’s paintings on a nearby rack. “Is this your work,” she asks. “Yes,” replies Marianne. “When did you do this?” “Oh, a long time ago.” In the painting – a night scene – a tall, young woman standing near a bonfire is seconds away from realizing that the hem of her dress is on fire. The tableau bears the same name as the film we are viewing.

In the next scene – and here the narrative begins to unfold as flashback – Marianne is in a longboat travelling to a small island off the Brittany coast. It’s a rough passage and at one point she is obliged to jump into the ocean to retrieve her boxed-up canvasses that have washed overboard in a heavy swell. This is going to be a difficult assignment.

Marianne has been commissioned to paint the headstrong Héloïse, the portrait to be sent to a prospective suitor in Milan. Héloïse, of course, is the young woman on fire in the above painting, and she is a most reluctant bride.

(Adèle Haenel, who portrays Héloïse, is the French actress who recently carried off a spectacular exit from the French César Awards at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, to protest the best direction award given to Roman Polanski.)

While it is difficult to be precise about the period, my guess is we are coming up on 1789 and the French Revolution. Still soaked from her watery crossing, Marianne arrives at her destination where she is dumped unceremoniously in front an imposing mansion that has perhaps seen better days.

Here she is taken in hand by the maidservant, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), a sympathetic young woman who answers Marianne’s questions to the best of her ability. Yes, she has been with the family for three years. No, she has known Héloïse just a few weeks, as the latter has only recently returned from a convent. When she meets Héloïse’s mother (the much- underestimated Valeria Golino), she is informed that her daughter’s portrait must be painted without her knowledge. In short, a subterfuge that does not make Marianne’s task any easier.

It seems the deception, in which artist must pass herself off as walking companion, is necessary because Héloïse made short work of the previous artist who was unable to complete his work. On her walks with Héloïse (the imposing Adèle Haenel from 120 Battements par minute or BPM), Marianne is careful not to ask too many questions, though she does inquire about her sister who fell (or jumped?) to her death from a cliff. Apparently, the unnamed sister was supposed to marry the man who is now Héloïse’s suitor.

Thus begins a natural complicity between subject and painter. The film follows a friendship that nearly ends when Héloïse realizes that Marianne has been sketching her surreptitiously all along.

Portrait is a patiently plotted film in which the director is at pains to remind us just how closely the lives of women were circumscribed in the patriarchy that was 18th-century France. While the high-born Héloïse envies Marianne her independence as she plies her artistic craft, the latter complains that she is not permitted to paint male subjects, at least not nudes.

The two women grow closer during the absence of Héloïse’s Italian mother. Their scenes together are supplemented by the presence of the soft-spoken Sophie who finds herself pregnant and does not wish to be. There is discussion of menstruation and folk remedies for ending an unwanted pregnancy. The solidarity between these three women, which crosses class barriers, is quite moving.

There is no musical score in Portrait, just the ambient sounds of a sparsely-furnished but not unwelcoming house – the crackling of a fire, the rustling of silk and the gentle clatter of kitchen utensils. There is more emphasis on the lives of women when Marianne and Héloïse take Sophie to the village midwife who will do an abortion. That same night, Marianne and Héloïse, now poised on the brink, gaze at each other across the village bonfire, while the peasant women sing “Non possum fugere” (“I cannot flee”). A later reference to the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld hints at the outcome of their relationship, or at least its impossibility.

The little bit of music heard on the soundtrack is mostly Vivaldi, particularly I Quattro Stagione, which an orchestra is performing in a public hall. Marianne is in the audience and spots Héloïse, now married with a child, across the hall. It is five years since they last saw each other. We watch Héloïse through Marianne’s eyes, as Vivaldi’s music washes over them. It is possibly the first live orchestra that Héloïse has heard.

Remarkable performances and exquisite cinematography round out Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a period piece of the first order.

In French with English subtitles.
Running time: 121 minutes.
Probable rating: 14A.

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