There is one special trick that occurs, like magic, in cinema. As though emerging in a momentous puff of smoke from the tip of the screenwriter’s magic wand, it materializes at the crossroads of two things; love and the memory of it.
It’s a very special meeting place and a match made in heaven. After all, what’s better than a love story? A story about the memory of love. Like an ice pick to the heart, it penetrates right through the hollow of the chest, leaves its mark and ultimately melts away. But the mark; the injury of it always, always stays and it makes a cold, drenching mess in the heart in doing so.
As avid cinephiles, La La Land’s Damien Chazelle and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (‘Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu’)’s Celine Sciamma both recognise this, and as lovers and writers tend to do, they dedicate themselves to it. How lucky we are to be witness to it.
Chazelle tips his hat to the classics, La La Land (in all its bright, colourful, dancing glory) being a sparkling affectionate ode to classic American cinema. The film is cinematography and colour theory at its best, the emotions, semiotics, symbolism oozing from each of the classic Hollywood settings, character costumes and even in the nature of the city. Colours clash and complement each other in all the correct moments. He’s not afraid to carry this forward through the troughs and crests of the love story. Beginning in colours that almost seem like an advertisement for LA, hope for big bright futures are clear. Changing then to pastels, beautiful galactic skies, even solely black and white, the journey these characters take is a colourful one. Arguably though, the most indulgent and doting work done by Chazelle in this film – one that sets his love story apart – is his use of recurring symbolic and semiotic colours of meaning. Blue lights; creative success and liberty. A red dress and stop light; a wake-up call. A green shared home; jealousy, emotional discord. Every colour scheme is used; complementary, analogous, triadic. All to represent different aspects of their love, lives, careers in all their glory.
Seeing Sebastian in red and Mia in yellow as they clash at the beginning as American film protagonists tend to do combined with a meshed kaleidoscope of colour as they dance in the sky and finally the emancipation and farewell of the closing scene shrouded in blue is enough to induce pure giddiness and anticipation. That is, to those paying attention (which, at the risk of quoting Lady Bird, is exactly what loving cinema really is; paying attention.)
Sciamma does European cinema proud with Portrait. It is a celebration of cinema completely and it couldn’t be clearer how dedicated to her craft that Sciamma is as a director and writer. And a very French endeavour that is indeed. She is so much in one; a feminist theorist, a queer theorist, a theorist of the Other and her film neatly contains it all, and in a purely simplistic setting with a powerful impact at that. Much like La La Land, colour plays a big role here too, thanks to cinematographer Claire Mathon who utilises 4K to intensify the range of colours that hold the intense meaning and symbolism in the film. For the majority of the run-time, Marianne is in red (fire, enrichment, energy), Héloïse is in green (growth, renewal). Complete opposites, yet we know they complement each other. And we know the memory of their love has massive input: Héloïse taking on red while catching fire; purity and rebirth as she swims in the sea and gets fitted for her wedding dress; future Marianne honouring the memory of them by wearing darker green as she teaches her class. On top of this all, a fascinating (and very subtly used) aspect of colour theory in Portrait is not only the symbolic use of colour hues, but of colour saturation and colour value. Like in La La Land, the romance between the two simply cannot begin until one thing happens. Laughter, shared. (Achingly acknowledged with Sciamma‘s purposeful dialogue, “I wasted time.” “I wasted time, too”). Easy to go unnoticed, it’s luckily not lost on us film fans that as soon as the two women become close, become friendly and eventually become lovers, everything just gets brighter. Clearer, sunnier and brighter.
The best part? It’s almost like studying a classic portrait in itself.
The use of the gaze, too, impacts both films wonderfully. Portrait going so far as to actively allude to Orpheus and Eurydice making the poet’s choice, (“Retourne-Toi”) as an exploration on how the male gaze can kill but also as a form of 18th century “Netflix and chill” (she really said that!) and La La Land nodding to it in its final moments as Mia witnesses Sebastian in his element; though a finish-line he would never have crossed without knowing her. The ultimate emancipation. (A very important point Sciamma made when she said: “I wanted to question what a happy ending is…We have the romantic-comedy philosophy – a frozen image of two people being together – and we also have the tragic ending. And I wanted neither. Why do we believe that eternal possession of somebody means a happy ending? Love educates us about art. Art consoles us from lost love. Our great loves are a condition of our future love”).
A point that has the power to change cinema for the modern viewer entirely.
Anyone can write a love story. To write a memory of a love story is to be advanced in storytelling. A language of looks and lines shared between two people suspended in time. This is what makes these films so special.
Watching Celine Sciamma and Damien Chazelle’s films comes with the gorgeous knowledge that they’ve done their homework. They’ve looked back on their respective countries’ legacy in film, read their texts and said “I’ve got it from here”.
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