Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019). Set near the close of the eighteenth century, Céline Sciamma’s achingly refined, French drama is about a female artist (Noémie Merlant) who is recruited to surreptitiously paint the portrait of a difficult subject (Adèle Haenel) as a gesture on behalf of her absent fiance, a Maltese count she has been handed off to against her wishes. Coexisting in a sprawling seaside home, mostly with only a servant girl (Luàna Bajrami) as company, the two women gradually form a bond that further blossoms in tender, hungry romance. Aided by Claire Mathon’s enticing cinematography, Sciamma crafts a lovely film that takes great care with its central relationships. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire is occasionally a little chilly and stilted, that only places it properly on the continuum of French cinema. At its most piercing, the film depicts the firm solidarity developed by women in a society that too often disregards them. Sticking together — in a variety of ways — is the only rational response.
Judy (Rupert Goold, 2019). This biopic of Judy Garland uses the framework of a late-career stint delivering concert performances in London in an attempt to scratch together some meager earnings after Hollywood abandoned her. Most of the film is given over to Renée Zellweger twitching, reeling, and seething as the older Garland, with the occasionally flashback to her days as a teen star (Darci Shaw plays the younger Garland), suffering the casual cruelty of studio control. The abuse of the past helps explain the pill-popping of the future. Zellweger brings the gusto of revival to her performance, including several scenes of singing from the stage in which she does a laudable job of capturing Garland’s signature vocal phrasing and sheer power (diminished as it was by the time in question). It’s a showcase part, and there’s listen of interest in the film beyond it. Rupert Goold directs with a workmanlike blandness, and most of the side characters are mere cogs, though Finn Wittrock manages a few sharpened moments of genial hucksterism as Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth husband.
For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019). Appropriately harrowing and heartbreaking, this documentary provides an unflinching look at what it was like to be on the ground in Aleppo when the city was being ruthlessly bombarded by Syrian military forces and their international supporters. Still a teenager and a college student when the extended Battle of Aleppo began, Waad al-Kateab was also a budding visual journalist. She trained her camera on the mayhem around her, the most powerful footage arguably shot in the hospital operated by her romantic partner, a physician sympathetic to the Syrian rebels protest the nation’s morally corrupt leadership. Working with English filmmaker Edward Watts, Al-Kateab assembles her material with a smart balance between the personal (particularly the birth and infancy of her daughter, who lends the film its title) and the broader impact of blithe geopolitical marauding. For Sama shows the devastating results of war without ever tipping over into exploitation. And the storytelling and the images are so compelling, it’s almost a surprise — and definitely rouses a flare of anger over injustice — that the film doesn’t end with a graphic explaining exactly which government officials were hauled to The Hague to answer for their war crimes.