Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)
I really wish I liked this more. Every time I hear/read about it, it all sounds like the kind of film that I would love, that I should love even. But it feels like two movies that never gel together, and as such the total is worth less than the sum of its parts. There is a truly impressive space adventure in here, with beautiful vistas and exciting scenes... and there is a heartfelt, transcendental drama about a father-son relationship that doubles as a commentary on what people now dub "toxic masculinity".
So why doesn't it really work, then ? I think there are stylistic choices here that cause problems - namely the use of Malickian narration. I can see why Gray thought it was necessary for a character as closed off as Brad Pitt's, but it ends up undermining the whole point of the film, in that I think the end is supposed to be triumphant for him: he has learned from his journey to be more in touch with his emotions, he has learned to live for something else than his father's approbation, he can stop being a robotic hero and start actually living life. And I think Pitt's performance fits that narrative... but because we hear him voice his feelings and doubts from the start, it doesn't feel as fulfilling a journey, and it ends up doing precisely the reverse of what Gray intended: I feel less close to Pitt's character than I would if I had been able to project onto his performance rather than being told what was going on.
As for the space adventure part of it, though it has some great scenes and is served quite well by van Hoytema's stunning cinematography (and the VFX team's stellar - hah - work), it doesn't fully work either, because it can't decide how grounded it wants to be. Or rather, I guess it does decide not to be grounded at all, which I'd be fine with if I accepted the film as purely a character/thematic piece and was generally more engaged with that aspect of it (as in Solyaris for example), but since that part doesn't quite work for me either, I end up thinking way too much about how nonsensical the plot is.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu / Portrait of a lady on fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)*
There is very little more satisfying to me in cinema than good use of music. It's a rather broad category I suppose, but it really defines most of my favorite films: it's often what makes the difference between a film I like and one I love. This film has no score at all, there are only two scenes** with music (diegetic in both cases), and I think that contrast is what makes those scenes so overwhelming and incredibly effective. The contrast between the silence and quietness of the narrative before those scenes (which come pretty late) helps make them stand out so much - and there is an immersive aspect to it as well. The action here takes place on an island on the coast of Brittany, and there are either three or four characters present at any time: it's quite the isolated place, and hearing music - whether it's sung or played by an orchestra - has to have a huge effect on these characters as a result. Thanks to Sciamama's smart choices, it does on us as well. Vivaldi's Summer is not exactly obscure, but I would be surprised if it had ever been used as well as it is here.
Now about the film itself, I suppose it is about what you'd expect. It's been criticized here as being a typical FEMIS film (the big, elitist Parisian film school which every upcoming French filmmaker seems to come out of) - in other words a stereotypical, stripped down but not too radical arthouse film that weaves in an important theme - and it's true that it fits into that pretty recognizable style... but who cares when it's this well done ? In a sense it doesn't help that it stars Adèle Haenel, in that she is so ubiquitous in the French cinema landscape at this point (her and Huppert seem to be in every other major arthouse film) that one could be forgiven for growing tired of her if she wasn't just so great here. The character is well within her wheelhouse, defined as she is by abrasiveness and defiance at first - but she, if you'll excuse the metaphor, paints a much fuller picture than that.
Given how dreary the place it takes place is, this is a very warm film. The central relationship is the reason for that of course, but it might have to do with the candelight as well. Maybe it's the fabled "female gaze", I don't know. One could certainly argue that the film is all about gazing, but I'd argue it's much more about how to immmortalize what one sees and what one feels as a result of that gaze.
* Worth noting that this is a bit of a strange translation. "Portrait of the girl on fire" would be much closer, and I'm not sure why they went another way.
** Three I suppose, but the first one is very short and basically just a setup for a later one.