#LFF2019 Recommended: Three Remarkable Portraits Of Strong Women

One day before Armando Iannucci revisiting Charles Dickens in ‘The Personal Story of David Copperfield’ kick-starts this year’s edition of the London Film Festival, here’s a few tips on films we have already seen and believe you should not miss. We begin with three portraits of strong women, fiercely fighting against the society’s conventions imposed on their lives, either by unwanted marriages; unaccepted LGBT relationships or an employment precariousness that comes in their way to a fulfilled existence.

Céline Sciamma, who will also come to the festival for a master talk, changed the Parisian banlieues of her former work ‘Girlhood’ for the French coast in the 18th century on her first, and very successful, period drama. ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ tells the story of Lady Heloise, a foul tempered young aristocrat who refuses her mother plans to arrange her marriage to an Italian noble, for which she wants a painting of her daughter done, in order to be sent to her pretender. After a failed attempt with a prestigious male painter, a female artist is hired, having to pass as a walking companion, to complete the task.

The painter’s discretion slowly wins the trust of her subject against her initial resistance and their relationship develops into a friendship first and an impossible romantic affair afterwards, all through a slow-burning; beautifully observed process, mirroring the attention to gestures and pose required by the painting process between artist and model.

Despite its good reception at Cannes, many believe it deserved far better recognition that the award it obtained for best screenplay, including high praise for both its protagonists, Noémie Merlant as the painter and, the current it girl of French Cinema, Adèle Haenel, who also shows her acting versatility on a totally different comical register in Quentin Dupieux’s mind-blowingly funny ‘Deerskin’ –another highlight of this year’s LFF programme. Both actresses give a lesson of restrained performance and gestural control that stand out among the female performances we have seen during the year.

Sciamma’s assured direction is also an exercise of precision and control which, maintaining her habitual care for composition in every scene, adds an austere and beautiful painterly quality to the images as required by both the depicted subject and era, as well as a moving, old-fashioned romanticism to the story, as discreet and affecting as the character’s relationship itself. A BFI Flare Special Presentation, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ is a must for fans of LGBTI-themed films and cinephiles alike.

Another excellent French LGBTI drama, this time with a more contemporary setting, is ‘Two of Us (Deux),’ which provides a rare chance to explore the highs and lows in the relationship of a couple of older woman. On its first feature, Director Filippo Meneghetti co-writes this story of a widow who, after losing her husband, has been in a decades-long relationship with her next door neighbour without finding the courage to come out to her family. When they decide to move and live together abroad, she is hit by a paralysing illness that finds her long-time partner excluded from her life, care and recovery, trying to renegotiate by all means necessary her presence back next to her, against the reluctant attitude of her daughter and the nurse she hires to look after her.

Anchored by another impressive acting showcase, ‘Two of Us’ is a moving tribute to the power of love at surviving the most challenging circumstances, without falling into sentimental cliché. Both the seasoned German actress Barbara Sukowa (known from early Fassbinder films, or more recently for her turn as Hannah Arendt) as the strong partner, and Martine Chevalier as the ill-stricken women that first shows her vulnerability struggling to get out of the closet, and then her strength finding new ways to communicate her feelings when she has been left speechless by her affliction, boast astonishing performances.

And from LGBT issues to an accomplished slice of social realism, denouncing the misery that austerity policies and job precariousness have brought to those in the less privileged layers of society. Spanish drama ‘A Thief’s Daughter’ has been the toast of the recent San Sebastian film festival, earning her young star, Greta Fernández, ex-aequo with Nina Hoss for ‘The Audition,’ the Golden Shell for best actress. Belén Funes’ assured debut, which has granted the director comparisons with the Dardennes for the dry, unadorned way she deals with serious social issues, avoids victimisation and explores the multi-faceted aspects of a young woman’s life, without just showing the dramatic elements on it.

Funes, who can be considered part of a recent new wave of young Catalonian female filmmakers that include Carla Simón (Summer 1993) or Meritxell Colell (Facing The Wind), has crafted a powerful lead character that, in spite of the trouble of her upbringing, with a neglecting father in jail; being in charge of her younger brother and having become a single mother herself with a guy who is not interested in a relationship; her “force of nature” type of personality helps her overcome all the obstacles life throws her way, except perhaps for the most damaging one, loneliness. The cast brings Greta Fernández together with his real life father, veteran Spanish actor Eduard Fernández, which adds a meta-cinematic, realistic bond to their characters, albeit the troubles behind their difficult relationship.

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