Last but not least, we come to the ‘Highlights’ thread at the Inverness Film Festival. I only saw two of the films in this section, for all the reasons I’ve talked about before, but they were in fact both definitely highlights of the festival. Films that I’m unequivocally glad that I went to see and that I’ll definitely be disappointed to not see collecting some gongs come awards season.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la Jeune Femme en Feu)
This one most definitely deserved to be categorised as a festival highlight. The festival programmer introduced it as his favourite film of the year, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I’d certainly expect it to be a top five contender.
The film is lit beautifully, with at least half the film taking place at night and being lit by candlelight and firelight. There’s something about that golden light that gives the film a particular intimacy. As though we’re stepping into a hidden world, the world of eighteenth century women that only exists when men aren’t around, when they don’t have to perform. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that was quite so much about the female gaze. Marianne is forever gazing at Héloïse, first as an artist, then as a lover, but Héloïse is always gazing back, learning the artist as the artist learns her.
There’s also something decidedly gothic about the whole endeavour, the lies and misdirection, the mysterious death of Héloïse’s sister, the resolution of Sophie’s personal problem, the doomed romance and all those intimate moments in flickering light with dancing shadows. Thwarted love and old obsessions abound.
The acting is superb throughout, with the four central characters putting in very different but very nuanced performances, although Adèle Haenel is particularly compelling as the enigmatic Hèloïse.
It was also, oddly enough, one of the very few films I’d heard anything about before the festival programme was released, and the trailer only made it look more intriguing so it became a must see. I’ve never seen any of Céline Sciamma’s other films, but on the strength of this one I clearly need to track them down.
This film could quite easily be seen as a companion piece to Official Secrets, although it didn’t make me anywhere near as angry as that film did. I guess that over the years I’ve seen enough documentaries and fiction films that tell parts of this story that seeing it all laid out in one place was just depressing rather than enraging.
It must have been around late 2007, early 2008 when I first heard about ‘enhanced interrogation’, those weasel words that allowed both the US intelligence services and the US administration to tell themselves that what they were doing wasn’t actually torture. It was an innocent enough email with a link to the advert for Amnesty International’s new anti-torture campaign. It wasn’t, as I expected aimed at somewhere in South America, or perhaps one of China’s infamous minority crack-downs. Instead it was much closer to home. (If you feel up to it, look up ‘Waiting for the Guards’ or ‘Stuff of Life’ on Youtube, they burned themselves into my brain at the time.) So the hardest part of this film was not that the CIA did these things, it’s the way that they cling stubbornly to the lie that these techniques work, despite the overwhelming evidence, even in the face their own reports to the contrary.
Over the intervening years more and more details have trickled out into the cultural zeitgeist, so that it feels like old news, that we already know that the CIA has done – and doubtless continues to do – unspeakable things. Guantanamo Bay has been abbreviated to Gitmo and become a byword for the sins and failings of an administration – a particularly paranoid and jingoistic period in US history – and extraordinary rendition a veil that allows the maintenance of the lie that the US doesn’t use torture.
Over and over in the film we hear variations on that early legal justification the CIA gets: it’s only legal if it works. It’s both fascinating and horrifying just what can be justified if the stakes are high enough. The ends and the means indeed.