by Nila Selvaraj
I’ve heard the phrase “be yourself” so many times that it has almost lost all meaning, but attending the 2019 Austin Film Festival afforded me an amazing opportunity to explore the phrase anew. Each of us consists of a multitude of selves, and we selectively leak parts of our persona out at any point in time – at the behest of others, because of societal restrictions, or of our own volition. There’s a tension between the many versions of ourselves vying to appear at any given moment, and the medium of film can examine this phenomenon because strong audio and visuals can highlight or obscure different facets of a character.
The Portrait of a Lady on Fire
In 1770 France, Marianne is commissioned to create a wedding portrait of Héloïse without letting Héloïse know. The idea of different versions of self physically manifest in Marianne’s paintings. A portrait represents a way to capture and preserve identity, but only by losing some depth and dimension. It arrives in a new home before the girl to be married, standing in for her. Although it cannot capture her full personality, it determines whether or not she will live there for the rest of her life.
The film is full of beautiful shots full of symmetry, interesting lighting, and emphatic framing, conveying Marianne’s artistic eye. In liminal, stolen moments, the camera focuses on Heloise’s body parts just as Marianne does, examining the parts that make the whole. While walking with her, running with her, and conversing with her, Marianne gleans a side of Heloise that a typical portrait artist would not, which is why the superficial and immaculate version of her portrait upsets Heloise, as well as Marianne, so much. Throughout the film, preceding events set up the building emotions really well, and destroying the first painting feels simultaneously like a loss and like empowerment.
I loved this film, but unfortunately, I only watched about half of it due to technical issues that will haunt me until I get to finish the rest. After sputtering through weird color grading, off-putting time skips, and missing subtitles, the theater finally admitted defeat.
A Hidden Life
During World War II, an Austrian farmer refuses to fight for the Nazis no matter the consequences. Terrence Malick is known for capturing stunning, mesmerizing visuals. Other than wide establishing shots of the gorgeous Austrian countryside, the film’s visual vernacular employs close-up shots at an unusual angle: slightly below eye-level. These shots capture an intimate moment using near frontality, with the subject not quite looking directly at the camera. I almost felt like it was a child’s eye view, accentuating the idea that this moment was pure and unfiltered, containing a version of these characters that they could not normally display to others.
The bucolic farm village where the protagonist Franz lives transforms under the Nazi regime. Where the family once found an easy sense of community and camaraderie, only uneasy danger remains, a transition made all the more insidious by how slow and natural it feels, as if the film is inducing a trance. It becomes evident that the people did not change; the potential for vitriol and intolerance lies inside everyone, until fear and ignorance draw these ugly feelings to the surface. Along with commentary about human nature and our social institutions, A Hidden Life portrays a beautiful act of resistance not as a means, but as an end in and of itself. For three hours, we have to endure Franz’s suffering with him.
Ford v Ferrari
After sitting through three hours of Malick, it was refreshing to see a movie for pure entertainment, where the main plot was just, “CARS GO FAST.” At first glance, these two films have nothing in common, but I drew parallels between both protagonists. Of course, Franz has more at stake, and his quiet strength contrasts with Ken’s unapologetic confidence. However, both men find themselves in situations where they could feign or mask some of their opinions to make their public life more convenient, but they choose to remain true to themselves. Both ultimately fail in achieving their overall goals but derive satisfaction from living according to their principles.
Underneath the racing plotline, Ford v Ferrari is about branding, and about striking a balance between personal dignity and the bottom dollar. In real life, “Ken Miles is not a ‘Ford Man,'” but he says that at 70 RPM, only one question matters: “who are you?” That’s what makes the moment in which he does cave to the pressure to slow down so poignant, and even though he gets screwed over, I still felt like he won. Overall, this movie was just a lot of fun to watch.
Not to be Unpleasant but we need to have a serious talk
The premise sounds like the set-up for a weird joke: a man gets diagnosed with an STD that kills the women with whom he’s slept. It doesn’t take long after the first flip of the 180-line in the very first scene to make it obvious that there is darker turmoil to come with the bizarre humor.
The film makes good use of economical editing and transitions, showing no more than absolutely necessary to convey the story. Proximate scenes work in tandem to relay the plot without spelling everything out for viewers. Each scene packs a punch, and there are so many interesting ones that make the movie worthwhile, with unique, creative visuals and characterization devices. Aris’s boss’s voice machine is grating and funny, making already bad poetry even worse. His doctor has wild hair, like a mad scientist. A clown-fish balloon floats behind him, filling up the frame during one of the most emotional moments of the film.
Past experiences shape character, but by leaving out most of the details of Aris’s past, the film initially lulls viewers into sympathizing with him. There are a few interesting foreshadowing shots, such as the top shot in which he drives past a crosswalk, literally leaving death in his wake as a woman falls dead behind him. Overall, however, audiences can relate to his troubles at work and felt bad for his plight. One might even be forgiven for thinking that he must insist on telling his exes about the STD himself out of some sense of chivalry or sensitivity.
As he goes through his past relationships, however, seeing him interact with his exes makes it slowly but painfully evident that he’s simply a terrible human being. He wants to control the situation, clinging to some semblance of normalcy in the face of his mounting guilt. His guilt takes focus, dissolving the details of each of his past relationships. The frame often shows Aris to one side of the bifurcating line, driving on the right side of the frame, unless one of his past lovers appears on the left side, as if his guilt takes up that extra space. The movie itself is complicit; it’s awfully convenient that each woman dies in perfect order, and only dies after he converses with them. They all rehash their issues with Aris, rather than immediately rushing to the hospital to save their own lives.
His exes seem so different, and it made me wonder what version of himself he used to make them want to have sex with him in the first place. Aris is a salesman, both in his work life and personal life. Throughout the film, everyone is selling something, and selling themselves. The bodybuilding competition and dog shows literalized the idea of performance, with contestants literally showing off for a living. In fact, the film was initially titled “The Great Pretender.” As dramatic and tragic events unfold around him, Aris’s actor seemed strangely neutral and unemotional through everything, letting the scenes show guilt for him. In the Q&A, the actor said, “it was like watching a nightmare for me.” Unlike the other films I saw at AFF, which were about finding a truer version of oneself, this film wrapped Aris in more and more layers of pretense, and that idea really stuck with me long after the mystifying ending scene.