I have been percolating on this bracket all week.
These two women are undeniably talented, but when it comes down to it, I just plain liked one more than the other. It’s proving tremendously difficult to accurately suss out the difference between objective skill and personal taste, so instead I’ll do my best to remark upon the differences and similarities of each “flavor profile,” as it were, and attempt to determine from there why one of these ladies just tasted so much better to me.
It seems unfair to compare their respective usage of tension, since the circumstances of the plot were so radically different. River of Grass is about a deliriously bored woman and man who meet in a bar and then end up on the lam because they inaccurately believe they killed a man. The stakes feel high for them, but the audience knows that they actually aren't. Yet despite an admittedly humorous premise, it never even comes close to feeling comical: the severe emotional detachment of the narrator was so unnervingly despondent, it casually walked the line between driftlessly suicidal and caustically nihilistic.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, two women fall in love in the 18th century and know that when the week is over, they will never see or speak to each other again. They are under the pressure of both the limits of time and the limits of their time. The first half of the film we see through the eyes of the painter who was hired to paint a wedding portrait for a young woman without her knowing about it; the second half she has conceded to being painted, and the focus shifts from the gazer to the gazee. Every second is wrought with the tension of what they have in the present moment, and absorbing every touch, glance, sigh, and tear until their time is up. There is no fighting their fate. The stakes could not be higher.
Both of these films are aggressively intentional. Reichardt and Sciamma know how to wield the power of a lingering pause, but they use them as radically different vehicles. The quiet moments in River of Grass are static; even when she films scenery flying by you never quite feel like you’re going anywhere. The silence in Portrait, on the other hand, is so fraught with friction and movement that you feel exhausted after every scene.
Neither film relied heavily on dialogue; and it’s pertinent to point out that both women wrote their own scripts. Although Sciamma remains the master of it, where Reichardt failed me in Meek’s Cutoff she more than made up for in River: in every sigh, glance, and pause, there was meticulous character development.
You could see the hands of these women in their work; every scene was riddled with their fingerprints in the most delicate and nuanced fashion.
"Non possum fugere" ... "I cannot flee." / Choir Conductor: Catherine Simonpiétri
Music by: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier & Arthur Simonini
Competing aesthetically, there’s no clear winner either - if River was a vintage Super 8 photograph, then Portrait is a Rococo style oil painting. That would be like juxtaposing Brigitte Bardot and Catherine I, or like attending a Battle of the Bands between The Jayhawks and Beethoven. Both films have a distinct flavor, mood, and atmosphere...
So why was one so much more powerful than the other? This is an arguably objective stance, since one was significantly more successful than the other. At the risk of sounding utterly trite, I’m just gonna come out and fucking say it:
Love. River of Grass was sorely lacking in love.
And the winner is...
I made a “checklist” of my favorite things in film for the last bracket:
- Visual storytelling: beautiful to watch (exceptional cinematography)
- Aesthetics: beautiful to look at (exceptional production design and costumes)
- Writing: beautiful to listen to (exceptional dialogue)
- The Bechdel Test: compelling, detailed, believable female characters
- Plot: a good story, or at least a sense of urgency and importance; do I give a shit about this?
- Whimsy: an element of folklore, fantasy, or parable
I am going to add to it, something so obvious that it's shocking me I didn't think of it sooner:
- Strong and compelling relationships: where is the love?
We're officially half way through!!