Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, both of which just played the 57th New York Film Festival, are not exactly set contemporaneously, but they’re not too far apart, at least from our contemporary vantage. Portrait unfolds over a few days toward the end of the 18th century, while First Cow is relatively early in the 19th, around 1820. They’re also set thousands of miles apart, First Cow remote (the Oregon territory) and Portrait, in some ways, remoter (the coast of France, in and around a well-appointed but seemingly isolated house). And superficially, they don’t have much in common beyond that remoteness, and an accompanying ender segregation. First Cow features only a few women, while Portrait of a Lady on Fire has almost no men.
A man, mostly unseen, nonetheless looms over the story of Portrait, told as a flashback from Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter and art teacher, prompted by a student’s question. Years earlier, Marianne is sent to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), so that the resulting picture may be sent to a potential husband, to seal the deal on an official marriage proposal (the painting will convey mostly Héloïse’s physical presence, and she is a terribly attractive woman). It feels like a formality, but it’s one that Héloïse will not sit for; upon her arrival, Marianne learns that she’s accepted a stealth assignment. She will pose as a companion for Héloïse, observe her, and paint her portrait in secret. The movie gets right into Marianne’s point of view, and her painter’s eye for detail; you can see her observing Héloïse’s hands, her earlobes, the back of her neck. Eventually also her face; Adèle Haenel is given a “you were expecting someone else?” face-reveal introduction.
The two women bond, slowly, and then fall in love, somewhat less slowly. (That Fault in Our Stars quotation seems to apply here: Slowly, then all at once.) Eventually, Héloïse does learn about Marianne’s assignment. “It explains all of your looks,” she says when she finds out, although of course it does not. For a time, especially when Héloïse’s mother takes leave for a few days, the women are allowed to create their own little enclave, accompanied by the servant girl Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). They cook, they eat, and they take walks by the seaside cliffs, where Héloïse’s sister, we learn early on, went to escape a life of loveless marriage. We’re meant to wonder whether Héloïse will follow suit. Hanel and Merlant are both terrific as these two women take solace in each other, and explore their limitations.
In some respects, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the kind of slow-burn costume-drama-with-restraint that critics love to, well, love. I confess I was taken aback by its quietude after hearing so many descriptions that referred to its screen-popping electricity. But Sciamma gives the love story heartbreaking context even in isolation, as the realities of late 18th century life slowly but surely intrude upon the characters’ makeshift idyll. Though most of the film focuses intently on a relatively short period, the movie jumps away for a grabber of a final scene. And after a mostly score-free film, music fills the speakers loudly and unexpectedly, a crescendo that the characters themselves can’t meet on their own.
I was surprised to find how few notes I took during First Cow. It’s also a quiet movie, and moves as deliberately as some of Reichardt’s others, but both its humor and its tension grows as it goes along, increasing from a wander to an amble to a brisk run. It’s also about a bond between two characters of the same sex, though the relationship mild-mannered cook nicknamed Cookie (John Magaro) and slightly more gregarious Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) is never sexual. They meet when Cookie is traveling with a group of disagreeable trappers, and he does King-Lu a favor. Later, they reconnect and go into an odd sort of business together: they steal milk from the neighboring “first cow” in the territory, use it to make sweet cakes, and sell them to variously raffish and wealthy clientele at a trading post—clientele that eventually includes the rich man (Toby Jones) whose cow they’ve been skimming. Yes, it’s a milk heist, happening right under the accidental mark’s nose (and right around his tastebuds, too).
Reichardt has made a number of frontier pictures, of sorts: the grim settler western Meek’s Cutoff and the contemporary Montana-set drama Certain Women. Both of those had plum roles for women, especially Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Michelle Williams. Here she reworks a more expansive novel by another frequent collaborator, Jon Raymond, into what often resembles an intimate two-hander, even though plenty of other characters flit in and out. Like Portrait, there’s a constant threat of intrusion—not on any sense of male solidarity, particularly, but on the modest and briefly picturesque life that Cookie and King-Lu’s business is able to afford them.
This is the point where I think I’m supposed to say something like blah-blah-blah-capitalism, and while that’s not an inconsiderable element of Reichardt’s work here, the film is more interesting to me as an expression of sensitive masculinity, rebuking when-men-were-men frontier narratives with impressive tenderness. It’s one of Reichardt’s best, the continuation of a real hot streak following the similarly excellent Certain Women. (Cow opens in the spring, and will compete accordingly for Best of 2020 list honors next year.)
As it happens, First Cow shares something else with Portrait: a wonderful ending that, in a way I won’t reveal, jumps back to its first moment. Both movies move forward with a certain inevitability, proceeding as they do from first scenes set further in the future than most of the rest of the story. But Reichardt and Sciamma both do a remarkable job of using their framings to add context, not predictability. What must happen, happens. But their rich details—the first sketch-lines of a painting, the tiny pleasures of a well-made sweet cake—bring these films to life that reaches beyond their plots.
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