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Women Filmmakers Shine In New Releases

Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) provides the vivid image that gives Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" it's intriguing title.
Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) provides the vivid image that gives Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" it's intriguing title.

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' and 'The Assistant' present a female perspective

Oscar may have had a hard time finding women to include in its nominations but female filmmakers shine in a pair of films opening this week: Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" and Kitty Green's "The Assistant," both opening at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and Angelika Film Center.

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

From the moment we meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant) we know she possesses a kind of fearlessness and determination. As she approaches an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the 18th century she does not hesitate to jump into the water to retrieve an item of hers that falls overboard. Then she's dropped on the shores of the island and has to climb up some rugged terrain to reach the home of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young woman whose wedding portrait she has been asked to paint.

There is some mystery to the commission involving both what happened to the previous painter hired for the task and the subject herself. Héloïse is not there to meet Marianne when she arrives. The remains of the previous portrait reveal a body but no face yet painted. When Héloïse finally appears neither Marianne nor the audience can catch a good glimpse of her. But slowly the two women get to know each other and find themselves drawn to each other.

Sciamma creates a seductive film that explores secret desires at a time when society had some strict rules governing behavior. The lovely nuanced performances of the two leads create a sense of intimacy that also informs Marianne's creative process and how she sees and paints the woman in front of her.

Sciamma has been making films for more than a decade. Hopefully, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" will get her more attention and more opportunities to tell unique stories.

"The Assistant" follows Jane (Julia Garner) through a single grueling day.
Bleecker Street Media
"The Assistant" follows Jane (Julia Garner) through a single grueling day.

'The Assistant'

Earlier this week, Harvey Weinstein’s attorney Donna Rotunno made her closing argument in the movie producer's Manhattan rape and sexual assault case. She characterized the prosecutors’ narrative about how Weinstein preyed on women as “stripping adult women of common sense, autonomy and responsibility.” With that news in the headlines, the release of "The Assistant" arrives as a challenge to those remarks and also as an exploration of an industry that needs to address how it has been doing business for more than a century.

Writer-director Kitty Green interviewed a number of assistants from the film industry in order to write her script for "The Assistant" and through those interviews she began to see the film industry through a lens that was looking up from the very bottom. It wasn't a pretty picture. The people she interviewed described long hours, low pay, verbal abuse and more.

To convey what this world is like, Green gives us Jane (Julia Garner), a bottom-rung assistant at an indie New York film company.

Her day begins before dawn and includes lots of Xeroxing and stapling; menial tasks of cleaning up after her boss both in the lunchroom and his private couch; emailing, answering phones, and deal with her boss' angry wife and babysitting his kids in the office. But when she's asked to deliver a naive young woman to a hotel to meet with her unnamed and unseen boss, Jane decides she has to say something.

When she tries to inform an HR person (Matthew Macfadyen), he initially seems open to hearing her out but then he quietly picks apart her concerns to make the very fact that she even thought to step forward seem ridiculous. Bottom line: he'll file the complaint if she really has no interest in keeping her job. Of course, he doesn't come out and say that but she knows that's what he means.

And that's the brutal beauty of the film. It never shows us anything that overtly constitutes a crime or a rape or a sexual assault. It doesn't want to give us something that is so clearly black and white because the world operates in shades of gray. I could see someone watching the film and insist that Jane overreacted and I can see someone else watching it and being outraged at the boss' behavior. What makes the film powerful is its ability to show us not the extremes of behavior that can go on in a movie company but the mundane kind of things that seem to happen all the time and to ask us if there is something wrong or broken.

The film is shot in drab, monochrome colors with practically no natural light. The office feels oppressive just in its bland visual decor and droning ambient sound. By spending a day with Jane we feel exhausted and drained. When her boss drops her a crumb of praise, we can see how that might be enough to keep Jane going in her job and accepting things she feels and knows are wrong.

This is Green's first foray into narrative fiction filmmaking. Previously she worked in documentary and directed the brilliant doc "Casting JonBenet," which cleverly conveyed an ever-shifting perspective on the story of the murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. She takes her skill at conveying a point of view and puts it to good use here. In this case, instead of the perspective constantly shifting, it is rigid and steady, staying with Jane the whole time.

Garner delivers a subtle, low key performance that seems to blend into the background yet stay powerfully with us. As with Anna Paquin's daughter in "The Irishman," Garner's silent observation says more about what's going on and on her moral judgment than if she had been given pages of dialogue.

"The Assistant" could have taken a more strident stand, offered up a more concrete case of abuse, or got on a soapbox to tell us what to do next. But it is more compelling to leave things somewhat ambiguous so we have to think about it, think about what things if any we are comfortable with, what things cross the line, what we might do in a similar situation. But the film leaves us with a feeling that change needs to happen and it has to start somewhere.