Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Directed by Céline Sciamma, 2019

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Jim Wilson: Michael, thanks for doing this with me again. How have you been doing?

Michael Clawson: Thanks for having me back for another Collokino! I’m doing well, spending much of summer here in Seattle as I usually do… inside, watching movies, and wishing my apartment had air conditioning (that’s an aspect of theater-going that I’m missing more than ever). How are things with you?

Jim: Great, thanks. Enjoying another hot and dry Colorado summer, and watching more movies than should probably be allowed.

With the third edition of Collokino, I’m breaking my own loose rules and having you on to talk about a film that I chose, when it’s the guest who’s supposed to choose (so maybe I’ll put you in the host seat a little). Ever since watching it the first time back in March, I’ve been longing to write or talk about Céline Sciamma’s absolutely incredible film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I’ve failed over and over again to put together a review that satisfies me. I notice that most reviews for it never get close to doing it justice, as if there’s something about the review format that neglects it, or can’t contain it. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea, or at least a pleasant challenge, to give it a look in a more casual, conversational format instead. Would you be so kind, fine sir, to give a brief synopsis of the film and your first impressions? This is your second watch of Portrait, is that right? Streaming, or have you picked up the disc?

Michael: Even if it is against Collokino guidelines, you didn’t have to twist my arm to get me on board for talking about this one. I saw Portrait towards the end of last year, really enjoyed it, and watched it again recently on Hulu. On both occasions, I was enraptured by Sciamma’s craft, the romance, and the relationship between artist and muse that the film explores. With that, a synopsis:

A gorgeous romantic drama set in 18th century France, the film begins in a classroom, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching a small group of young women to paint. Mid-lesson, she stops. She’s noticed a painting she did some time ago sitting in the back of the room, apparently pulled out by a curious student. Composed mostly of dark greys and blues, it’s of a lone woman in a moonlit field, the base of her dress aflame. The sight of it floods Marianne with memories that form the remainder of the film. In flashback, Marianne arrives on the rocky shores of Brittany, where she’s been commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who’s returned home from a convent after her sister’s death. Héloïse is to be married to a Milanese suitor she’s never met, and in defiance of this unwanted future being thrust upon her, she has refused to pose for other portraitists. Marianne thus begins the portrait in secret, pretending she’s been hired simply as a companion to Héloïse, but stealing glances at her for later reference on their regular, often silent but charged walks along the shoreline. As the painting comes to life, so too does an attraction between Héloïse and Marianne, and who’s gazing at who evolves.

How would you characterize the development of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship, in terms of either their desire for each other or their statuses as artist and muse? If that question points you in a direction you don’t want to go yet, maybe start by sharing what you responded to, or found compelling, in a more general sense.

Jim: And that’s exactly why I asked you to set it up, lol. You do that really well.

Sure, I’d love to talk about the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne. Adèle Haenel, in an interview included on the Criterion BD (it’s a beautiful thing) talks about three stages in the evolution of the characters, which tracks with the stages in the evolution of their relationship. In the first, she describes the bodies as angular, the faces as masks, with no warmth between them. In the second phase, which she calls intermediary, cracks appear in the masks, there’s a little intimacy, and some warmth is starting to peek through. In the third phase, which she calls the hottest, the bodies are loose, voices are spontaneous, and emotions are strong. I would simplify that, and describe the three phases in the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne as illusion-liberty-love. Marianne performs an illusion, which Héloïse at least senses, which keeps her closed and distant. When illusion is replaced with honesty, the film reaches its apex, right around the one-hour mark, with the liberating middle section, followed by the romantic final section. I’d love to cover all three of those phases, but would first emphasize a crucial point between the first and second phases, when the veil is first lifted from Marianne’s deceit.

Héloïse is looking at Marianne’s first painting of her, the one she does on the sly. It really is terrible, how Héloïse is depicted as an adult-sized little girl, all of her angles rounded off, which is a criminal thing to do to the visage of Adèle Haenel, whose angularity and larger-than-lifeness is what makes her so beautiful. When Marianne explains that the portrait is stylized to conform to certain conventions, Héloïse furrows her generous brow and asks “You mean there’s no life, no presence?” Marianne explains, “Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth.” And there the conceptual bomb is dropped. Héloïse snaps back “Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep.”

What Marianne is doing is advocating for an aesthetics of essence, the idea that all people can be reduced to some basic kernel of humanity, which can be captured in graphic representations of people. Without getting into the philosophical weeds of it, suffice it to say that it’s an idea which everything about the film then roundly rejects. Marianne has it exactly wrong. It’s the fleeting moments that tell the deepest truths, as the film, and she, learns to illustrate. What’s distinctive to any human subject, including deep feelings, is what makes that individual person utterly unique. The worldly Marianne, an unusually empowered woman for her time, is being schooled by the provincial Héloïse. Héloïse may be of aristocratic birth, but she’s a rough stone compared to Marianne’s polished rock. Héloïse commands the aesthetic core of Portrait. There’s a purity of heart with her, as cold and jagged as it may be, that has the power to reconfigure Marianne’s deeply rooted ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable.

So that’s a start to talking about the development of Héloïse’s and Marianne’s relationship. As to your question about artist and muse, I think again to what Haenel said on that very point, that there is no muse, that once the work of the painting truly commences, following the scene described above, it is an entirely collaborative effort. Héloïse and Marianne work together, side by side, to create the portrait, which is one of the film’s loudest political messages, about how autonomous women are naturally collaborative.

Michael: Oof, yeah, the first painting is not a satisfying one. Héloïse appears docile, doll-like, and the look of contentment on her face contradicts the intensity and anger we’ve seen behind the real Héloïse’s eyes up to that point. We’ve watched Marianne steal look after look at Héloïse, only for her to disregard the severity she’s witnessed in Héloïse, and instead appeal to what convention tells her a husband expects to see. “I put it the way it is”, Héloïse says earlier in reference to how she describes her impending marriage to a stranger. The first painting doesn’t depict Héloïse as she is, so it’s really no surprise when she looks at it and asks “Is that me?”

I like the word “illusion” to describe the initial phase of the relationship, because I think it speaks not only to Marianne’s deception and the wall it puts up between them, but also because it applies to what frustrates Héloïse about how other portraitists, and Marianne at first, render her with their art. The illusion is dismantled as their attraction to each other grows, because desiring someone compels you to really look at them. The more they know and understand each other, the better and more truthful the art they create together. I love both Merlant and Haenel, but I’m particularly knocked out by how Haenel embodies Héloïse’s softening over time.

Prior to them opening up to each other, I think Marianne, in an unconscious way at least, mistakenly conceives of herself and Héloïse as artist and muse, since that’s a relationship that implies a one-way gaze, and Marianne doesn’t realize Héloïse is looking back at her. Once Marianne realizes she too is being looked at, the idea of them as artist and muse falls away.

Want to tell me more about the three phases you’ve identified: illusion, liberty, and love?

Jim: Actually, that’s a good point, that in the first stage, Marianne is having some kind of an artistic epiphany, though she has no clue yet what it means, or how to express it. That’s what Héloïse’s contribution ultimately teaches her. But yes, at that early point, Marianne is seduced by the impression of Héloïse as her muse, though that is, like so much in the first phase, an illusion.

I love the middle, liberating segment of the relationship, and the film, because it is the freest space, and because it brings to the center Sophie, the housemaid. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) isn’t given nearly enough attention by fans and critics. Without her, the film would fail. Her unwanted pregnancy leads Portrait to its most touching and funny moments. The three of them cooking, playing cards, reading and discussing Ovid, attempting various folk methods of abortion, attending a festival, and finally completing the abortion, are the truly most beautiful and lasting moments of the film, acute episodes of freedom and self-discovery.

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After the abortion, while Sophie is still weak and recovering, Héloïse has the idea of commemorating the tableau of the abortion, which we’ve just witnessed, into a painting, and assembles Sophie, Marianne, and the props to make it happen, thereby recording an event always erased or avoided from much of documented history. Recall that during the actual abortion, Marianne looks away, cringing, until Héloïse insists “look!” Héloïse is profoundly moved by everything she experiences, though her cynical and embittered perspective tempers her passions. Liberated by those same experiences, she begins to express herself, to assume what agency she can, with the inspiration Marianne and Sophie award her (Héloïse’s muses). Héloïse’s anger fuels so much of her own awakening, which in turn inspires and instructs Marianne (Marianne’s muse). It’s my vote for the film’s most poignant moment, the triumph of sisterhood, as it were, under such difficult circumstances.

I feel like I’ve dominated too much of the subject space here, Michael. Tell me about what matters to you about Portrait; specifically, generally, what is this film for you?

Michael: I’m with you, Portrait was one of the most discussed movies of 2019 (rightly so), but Sophie and the abortion sub-plot seem to have more often than not gone unremarked on, so I’m glad you bring it up. I love Bajrami’s impassiveness, and how despite Sophie being a particularly vulnerable character, Sciamma resists the temptation to turn her into an object of our pity.

All ideas aside, though I’ll turn back to those shortly, the movie wouldn’t matter anywhere as much to me as it does were it not for its ravishing form. I love the rugged coastal setting and the pronounced sound of the crashing waves, the contrasting crimson red and emerald green dresses, the POV shots of Marianne’s canvas as she’s painting. One of my favorite details is how Sciamma brings her camera around corners: there’s the shot where the camera drifts down the stairs and turns to show us Héloïse for the first time, though she’s cloaked and facing away, and there’s a smooth curve the camera follows around a rock wall on the beach when Marianne follows Héloïse into an alcove for their first kiss. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is a huge factor in the film’s success for me.

Another aspect I love but that has already been discussed to no end is the absence of men from nearly the whole movie. It’s great! Cinema has given us more than enough stories about gay couples confronted in obvious ways by intolerant men. Portrait implicitly recognizes the transgression in Héloïse and Marianne falling for each other, but instead of exploiting intolerance for cheap pathos, Sciamma confines it to the background, and instead foregrounds female solidarity, art, and love. It’s very refreshing.

One thing I haven’t seen talked about as much is how the film touches on the relationship between art and memory. It is, after all, framed as a relationship remembered from Marianne’s perspective. I was struck by the dialogue that comes towards the end, when Marianne sketches a small drawing of Héloïse to keep for herself, and then sketches herself in Héloïse’s book. “You can reproduce that image to infinity,” Héloïse says. “After a while, you’ll see her when you think of me.” Altogether, I hear the movie saying that if visual memories can fade and be replaced by the images we create, the pursuit of truth rather than adherence to established artistic norms is only that much more essential.

I’d be curious to hear your take on how the Orpheus and Eurydice myth fits into the narrative, but take us any direction you’d like from here.

Jim: Full agreement on all those points. On the subject of art and memory, Sciamma said it herself, “Art consoles us from lost love.” As you point out, the film is Marianne’s memory of the time spent with Héloïse, a memory sparked by the painting her student uncovers at the beginning, which you describe, a memory that relieves her of her initial sadness. The keepsake paintings Marianne makes for each, the painting of Héloïse that Marianne sees in the gallery, all serve to soften the grief of their lost love. And maybe most powerful of all instances of art consoling the memory of lost love, is the long take of Marianne watching Héloïse react to the Vivaldi number in the end, a piece Marianne introduced her to during their time together. It’s a really stunning bit of performance from Haenel, as she passes through several emotional states, ultimately smiling through her tears at the memory of that magical time in Brittany with Marianne. It gets to me just thinking about it. I think it’s arguably the most important emotional take-away from the film, the imperative of art as a means to capture the permanence of love in the hearts of those who struggle to find comfort when it’s lost. Knowing that Sciamma and Haenel themselves experienced something similar together only makes it all the more compelling a point.

In an interview with Céline Sciamma included on the Criterion disc, she speaks at length about the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Evidently, she included it in the script at the very end of the writing process, because she wanted something for the three women to talk about during that crucial liberating middle section. Since it’s a myth often discussed in feminist circles, as it may suggest the lethality of the male gaze, she went with it, and ultimately found that it fit perfectly with the other themes of the film, especially the centrality of looking, which is something I’d like to come back to. As Sciamma further explains, it serves also as something that can be discussed, debated and theorized about endlessly, with any perspective as valid as any other. Does Orpheus make the poet’s choice, or the lover’s choice, is it maybe Eurydice who commands him to turn around, is it about a loss of faith, is it inevitable, is it a way to share a final farewell? All of the options create a conceptual tension that is very useful to the texture of the film. Personally, I recognize it as a practical device that works in all of those ways, though I’m less taken by its importance to the real gravity of Portrait, which for me remains thoroughly grounded in the evolution of love through art, and the dynamics of the gaze, of looking and seeing.

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I like your observations about the cinematography, which reminded me of another point Sciamma makes about why she chose to shot the film digitally – to provide the high-resolution richness that practically explodes off the screen. What other visual elements of the film did you enjoy, whether costumes, hair, the plain interior settings, or Sciamma’s really unique approach to period details?

Michael: As you talk about it, I feel the self-discipline I’ve practiced in waiting to make my next Criterion purchase is slowing breaking down…

I’m kind of relieved to hear you say that the inclusion of the myth isn’t of huge importance to you. It’s detail that’s ripe for discussion, which I like and have mulled over plenty, but I’m in the same boat. Other aspects of the film, most of which we’re already talking about, have more resonance for me.

The digital look is really interesting. I don’t think I would describe this movie as a particularly transportive period piece, but I don’t mean that pejoratively. Where other filmmakers might apply aesthetics that would either heighten our sense of the story as a memory or as one from over two centuries ago, maybe with the use of ellipses or a grainier look, the digital images have a real immediacy to them because of their clarity. Combine that with how pristine the wardrobes are and the stylishness of the relatively minimal production design, there’s just a feeling of the “now” in the film’s construction. Which I think really works for a film whose themes are as relevant as ever. Social and artistic convention of 18th century France informs what literally transpires, but I don’t think it’s a movie that’s strictly about the period it’s set in. The ideas about art and forbidden love transcend the time period.

If I may share one thing I didn’t care for: I could have done without the shots of Héloïse in her wedding dress, luminous in the castle’s dark halls. For me, they’re just a little on the nose in visualizing how the inevitability of Héloïse’s future keeps sneaking up and tormenting Marianne. Hopefully I didn’t just destroy my chances of being invited back for another Collokino.

That last shot really is stunning. It’s as if Héloïse relives the whole relationship in that short span of time, experiencing that rising wave of desire all over again. She’s so overwhelmed she’s nearly gasping for air. Both Merlant and Haenel really nail the breathing these women do when they’re around each other. The rise and fall of their chests always speaks to the charge between them.

Care to expand on the notion of “looking” that you brought up?

Jim: Surrender to the Criterion Temptation, dude. Trust me, the Criterion BD of this, the whole presentation, is more than worth it.

The apparitions of Héloïse in the halls in her wedding dress are just another expression of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale, though it’s not Hades who steals Héloïse from Marianne, but a Milanese nobleman (the difference being <cymbal crash>).  We’ve agreed it is not the film’s strongest suit, so your good standing in the Collokino rolls remains unblemished. For now.

To get to the stuff about looking, I’ll start with Sciamma’s mise-en-scene. During my last watch, I became fully aware of how much the film is built on a method of composition that Sciamma is deliberately crafting in every frame. I don’t think of Sciamma as a formalist, per se, but here she is literally and formally composing this film as a tableau, or a series of tableaux, in both the English language sense of a graphic arrangement, interlaced with the French meaning of, among other things, a portrait, or a painting. It is, of course, a film about an artist and the portrait she paints, a technique that Sciamma is mimicking in cinematic form. She assembles a fastidious arrangement of graphic signs and applies them to characters testing their own limits of self-determination, through signals, subterfuge, and sincerity.

Neither realism nor naturalism, nor any other method of representation, describes this. Realism is reserved more for the period details, where the stark minimalism of the physical spaces, the clothes, and the food, make convincing historical, and geographical sense. As for character representation, it mimics the montage quality of memory; the characters are usually still, or walking slowly (after one initial mad dash). Mostly what they do is look at each other, and talk to each other in straightforward declarative sentences, and ask basic questions they, and the viewer, want answered frankly. It’s almost like a series of still shots, gorgeous, sensual shots of hair and faces and eyes and hands and paintings, of sea, air, earth and fire, but static at first, sans any reaction. It’s an overwhelmingly powerful cycling of images and atmospheres that hangs more heavily over the film the more you watch it. It’s a visual film about looking, regarding, seeing, not talking, even less moving, just watching, observing. It’s something both Marianne and Héloïse say to each other often throughout the film, “regardez” or “regarde moi”. Look at me.

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You said it yourself: “desiring someone compels you to really look at them”. In the critical middle section there’s another portraiture sitting, during which Marianne describes to Héloïse some of her telling gestures, clearly pleased, if not a little smug, with her powers of insight. In turn, Héloïse commands Marianne to come to her side and asks her what Marianne thinks Héloïse sees when Marianne is studying her. Marianne’s smugness evaporates. The scrutiny of looking is not one way, not restricted to a single perspective, but is dynamic, recurrent, and complementary. The subjects of their gazes – one another – change with this scrutiny, becoming fuller, more complete, and more worthy of love. By looking, they recreate each other and themselves, and draw each other more thoroughly into being. The triptych exchange of glances during one of their earliest walks, when Marianne and Héloïse steal glimpses of one another, is a breathtakingly remarkable encapsulation of the looking theme, and one of the coolest shots I’ve ever seen in any film. It’s such a critical and central theme, to me, that “regarde moi” could easily be the film’s subtitle. Portrait is all about examining its characters as they regard each other, and create art and love from what they see.

Though I could happily go on talking about this amazing film forever, I suspect we should start wrapping it up. Anything more you want to add, Michael?

Michael: I think those points are great ones to end on, they get at the heart of what I really like about this film. You mentioned that you think many reviews have failed to do this film justice. I’d never be so bold as to say, “We’ve done it!”, but I think we’ve covered a lot of ground using this format. And since it was a great pick, I think you’ve retained the right to break Collokino rules again in the future and choose films for discussion.

Jim: Well, I don’t know if we’ve done anything, but I do feel a little unburdened. This will forever be a special film for me, and one I’m always eager to talk about.

I do want to take the opportunity to promote the films of Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel. If you’re a fan of Portrait, do not miss Sciamma’s other three features, Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood. She is, I think, one of the most gifted directors working today. She’s a remarkably sharp storyteller with the heart of a philosopher. As for Haenel, there’s a pretty rich range of cool films she’s been in, starting with the just-mentioned Water Lilies, Sciamma’s debut feature, with a then-amateur Haenel, a coming-of-age masterstroke you won’t soon forget. Her performance in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance earns her my eternal respect. Look out for her, too, in a great German film, alongside Lars Eidinger, called The Flowers of Yesterday. I’m also particular about In the Name of My Daughter, if only because she plays opposite Catherine Deneuve, to whom Haenel is uncannily similar in temperament, and because I love that cross-generational thing.

That’s all. Thanks for doing this, Michael. It was a blast.

Michael: I’ll second your promotion of Girlhood and House of Tolerance, and add the others you mention to my own watchlist. Thanks Jim!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Trailer

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and to stream on Hulu.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.

Goodbye First Love: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

Goodbye First Love

Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011
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Jim Wilson: So, I’m kicking off my film conversation blog by discussing with my friend Michael Clawson Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2011 love story Goodbye First Love. It tells the story of Camille (Lola Créton), a 15-year-old girl in Paris, who is deeply in love with the slightly older Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Camille describes herself from the beginning as a “melancholic”, and it’s clear that she seems as motivated to wallow in the dark waters of her own fears as much as she’s inclined to bask in the sunshine of her affections for Sullivan. Sullivan’s planned trip to South America with friends is fueling Camille’s despondent tone, but there also seems to be something deep and immovable about her forlorn behavior. When Sullivan leaves, Camille falls into a deep malaise, and Hansen-Løve’s direction mimics the dull routines of her life, displaying a repeating loop of daily activities, the focal point of which is a bank of mailboxes in her family’s apartment building, where Camille returns again and again, anticipating another letter from far-away Sullivan.

Michael, I know you’re a big fan of Hansen-Løve and have seen more of her titles than I have, though I think we share a mutual appreciation for her 2016 film with Isabelle Huppert called Things to Come. I love her attention to apparently random details, by which she makes clear the emphasis she places on the intermediate moments of everyday life. I was particularly taken, at the very beginning of the film, with the great care she gives to filming Sullivan as he takes off his gloves, gathers some coins and purchases a pack of cigarettes from a cute little wall-mounted vending machine, but then the flower he buys next from a street vendor is only hinted at. What elements of Hansen-Løve’s style stand out for you in this film?

Michael Clawson: It’s true, I have a real fondness for Hansen-Løve, and I think Goodbye First Love is my favorite of hers. It’s been several years since I first saw the film, and one element that had escaped my memory is the brisk, elliptical editing scheme, and how Hansen-Løve uses it to repeatedly skirt melodrama and instead, as you say, emphasize the everyday. In that same vein, the structure is such that key moments in Camille and Sullivan’s relationship occur off-screen: we meet Camille and Sullivan after she’s already fallen completely head over heels for Sullivan, and also after he’s already decided to leave her for South America. Considering how utterly devastated Camille is about Sullivan’s leaving, we can only imagine how upset she was when he actually broke the news to her. I like how Hansen-Løve is more interested in the suggestiveness of “in-between” moments, rather than the most dramatic ones. Even what we do see of Camille, as overwhelmed by heartbreak as she is, is played with some understatement, rather than as a series of really emotional highs and lows. 

You also mention Hansen-Løve’s attention to detail. I was most struck by that aspect of her style when Camille and Sullivan take a trip to her family villa in the countryside, just before Sullivan leaves. I love how gracefully Hansen-Løve evokes the feel of the surrounding area and the landscape. The warmth of the sunshine, the wind in the trees – all the sensory details that Camille will forever associate with this indelible relationship come through Hansen-Løve’s elegant compositions. 

How did the movie play for you this time around? What struck you as interesting, or affecting?

Jim Wilson: Oh, I really loved it this time around. This was one of those films I watched early on in my submergence into French cinema, when I still didn’t have the proper understanding, or really contextualization, to fully appreciate it. Watching it now, it’s pure poetry.

I love your point about everything that happens before the story even begins, and what kind of emotional upheaval has already happened. That’s great story-telling, what’s left to your, the viewer’s, imagination.

 Like I said, I really keyed into Camille’s naturally melancholic nature, just as she knows it to be, and how that naturally frames all of her experiences in life. I can relate to Camille, because I’ve always been like that myself, always looking for some dark cloud to go cower under. The really moving import of this movie is how she comes to live with those parts of herself that are always at war, at least for the time being.

Camille becomes an architect over the, what is it, seven, eight-year course of the story? Or an architectural student, anyway. In a scene from one of her architecture classes, a fellow student reads a quote about the need for houses, and some obscure dilemma between art and architecture. “People seek to maintain their comfort,” she says, “They hate whatever wrenches them from their certitudes, whatever bothers them. This is why they love their houses, and hate art.” I don’t think this is meant as an indictment of Camille as a philistine, but it does a beautiful job of anchoring Camille in a powerful personal connection with her chosen profession. Architecture is a sheltering permanence that, when done well, provides comfort. But it may also filter out difference, and instances of spontaneity. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love how Camille doesn’t have to become some revised, updated version of herself to move forward. She doesn’t really change at all. She’s just more capable of managing the emotional landscape that’s always challenged her. I think of Adele in Blue is the Warmest Color, honestly, an intensely intimate romantic who, like Camille, kind of learns how to outgrow her own obsession, though it will always be there. There will never be a time in Camille’s life when the appearance of Sullivan won’t stir up deep emotions.

Talk on that a little, and then tell me what you think is going on with Camille and Lorenz, her Norwegian teacher/lover, a relationship that develops as Camille pursues her career as an architect. I think she respects and admires him, but not sure if she really loves him, at least not in the way she loves Sullivan. Is that the point, to illustrate how Camille compartmentalizes love, or powerful emotions, or have I taken the wrong fork?

Michael Clawson: Camille becomes more securely herself – that’s a great way to put what happens. She doesn’t try to put the past behind her or reinvent herself to overcome the heartache, but instead comes to accept the permanence of the memories she has with Sullivan, and the longing that might always be stirred up when she’s reminded of him. It’s not a movie about falling in love or being in love, but the lasting impression that really falling for someone for the first time leaves on us. I like the comparison between Adele and Camille, and their shared romanticism. In the scene just before the one you described, Camille’s professor looks over the architectural model she’s built, a mock college campus, and knocks it for being impractical. The same idealism that makes her think students wouldn’t mind an absurdly long walk between their dorm and their cafeteria is the same idealism that probably had her thinking she and Sullivan would be together forever. It’s adolescent naivete, but Hansen-Løve in no way holds it against her.

I agree that Camille isn’t deeply taken with Lorenz. I get the sense that similar to how concentrating on architecture helps to divert her attention away from her melancholia, a relationship with Lorenz feels like a step forward away from the relationship she still misses. Her affection for him is genuine – he’s much more than just a distraction – but the relationship is important mostly insofar as she’s learning that she could be happy with someone else. Lorenz may or not be the guy for her. I’m guessing he’s not.

I’m not quite sure how the timeline lines up with actual events, or if it does at all, but in light of the film supposedly being autobiographical, I think Lorenz might be a stand-in for Olivier Assayas, who Hansen-Løve was married to for a period of time. The age gap between Camille and Lorenz certainly fits.

Other thoughts? Other aspects you found appealing, or not so much? Also, your familiarity with French cinema runs deeper than mine. You mentioned Blue is the Warmest Color – any other films or filmmakers that come to mind as relevant points of comparison?

Jim Wilson: I’ll address that last bit first, then move on. To be honest, Michael, a great deal of French cinema reminds me of Goodbye First Love. The better question is what French cinema doesn’t resemble GFL? And I say that with boundless affection for French cinema.

In the end, the film’s motif, the straw hat Sullivan gives to Camille early on, floats down a lovely summer river, a gentle farewell. They’ve tried one last time to recover their affections, but it’s as hopeless as it’s ever been. I see the film like a memoir, probably a thickly-veiled tale of Hansen-Løve herself, and, as you point out, her relationship with Assayas. Camille’s intensely personal excursion is clearly more than a screenwriter’s invention. It feels very real.

My leading questions aside, what makes this a five-star film for you? What do you most love about it?

Michael Clawson: I don’t rate it five stars because I think it’s a “perfect” film by any means, but what I love about it overpowers aspects that aren’t worth as much. It’s partly a confluence of aesthetic choices that I love, from the score, which is nostalgic but not overly sentimental, and which seems to gently push the story forward, to the simple, understated beauty of Hansen-Løve’s eye for things. Beyond those more superficial pleasures, I simply would be hard-pressed to find a coming-of-age film that I think better captures the wistful feelings that follow from your first real break up, and how difficult navigating heartbreak can be when you’re young. And not only that, but Hansen-Løve does it without romanticizing Sullivan and Camille’s relationship, or succumbing to cliches. I think Créton does a phenomenal job of bringing specificity to Camille – every one of her tears feels so real and true – while remaining just indecipherable enough that we have room for speculation as to what she’s feeling, and can fold our own experiences into hers. And the ending, which you already mentioned, I find absolutely exquisite. 

Jim Wilson: Yeah, I thought some of the music was really interesting, not stuff that’s trying to evoke a particular emotion or communicate any overall tone, but accompanies Camille and Sullivan, like a companion.

I did want to bring up one other thing about architecture as it fits with Camille. During a scene where Lorenz is lecturing the class, he brings up memory as an important thing that architecture ideally needs to incorporate into a structure. I like to think that really sank in with Camille, and it’s through architecture that she finds a means by which to locate and cope with her memories of Sullivan.

I can’t agree with you more about Lola Créton’s performance; she’s so effortlessly natural. You of course know of her performance in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, and I’ll further point out another role of hers in Claire Denis’s Bastards. It’s a smaller role, but she plays a girl who is deeply traumatized, and she’s so convincing as someone with a lot of buried horrors, without speaking much at all.

Is there anything more you want to add before we wrap up this first Collokino colloquy?

Michael Clawson: I haven’t seen Bastards, but you saying that Créton doesn’t speak much in that role makes me think again of the scene where Camille’s professor critiques her model. I don’t think Camille says even a word in response to him! We just watch her subtly react to what he says – she lightly shrugs, smiles a bit, etc. I love watching all those little gestures. 

Thanks for hosting the discussion, Jim! I love this film, and, as always, really enjoyed talking through it with you.

Jim Wilson: My pleasure, Michael. We’ll do it again soon.

Goodbye First Love Trailer

Goodbye First Love is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.

The Secret in Their Eyes: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

The Secret in Their Eyes

Directed by Juan José Campanella, 2010

Jim Wilson: Hi, Taylor. Welcome to Collokino.

Taylor Baker: Thanks for having me, Jim! This has been a long time coming. I’m glad we’re finally able to sync up for a discussion.

Jim: Agreed. I’ve been meaning to have you on for a while now, since you co-host the Drink in the Movies podcast with Michael Clawson, my most frequent guest. In fact, I just completed a talk with Michael a couple weeks ago, so it’s fitting to have you on next.

Taylor: I’ve shamefully only seen one film out of the six that you two have discussed, that one being Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Your most recent discussion has inspired me to watch L’humanité. Dumont is another longtime blind spot in my viewing and your characterization of him has piqued my interest a great deal.

Jim: I hope you do. Dumont is a challenge, even for those who, like myself, love every frame.

You’ve brought Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes to talk about. Though I’m a fan of Argentine cinema, his films have been a blind spot of my own, until now. Why did you choose this film to discuss? What’s your background with it, and with Campanella’s work in general?

Taylor: As an adamant lover of mainstream challenging filmmakers Aronofsky, Zahler, and Noé I’m hopeful and intrigued!

Thank you for allowing me the courtesy of dumping one of my longtime loves on your doorstep. I’ve always intended to engage with it again but the right timing never seemed to occur. Shortly after receiving your invitation I realized that this would be a wonderful way to grapple with both the film and my feelings toward it.The addition of Felix Monti as cinematographer of both The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl, a Martel film you rate quite highly on Letterboxd, also made me feel that this would at bare minimum be a fruitful discussion for each of us. The Secret in Their Eyes was brought to my attention in a podcast (I believe it was called Nerdist at the time and is now ID10T) with Jon Favreau around 2014, in which he postulated that it may be his favorite film. At that recommendation I sought out the film, reacted very strongly during that single viewing, felt that affection continuously grow, and now we’re here talking about it! I’ve only dipped my toe into Campanella’s oeuvre once since The Secret in Their Eyes. This last December his newest film El cuento de las comadrejas (The Weasel’s Tale) finally had a North American release, and Graciela Borges the “star” of the picture delivered one of my favorite performances of the year 2020. The film itself is a delight, that I’d recommend to anyone with a penchant for whodunnits that have a comedic tone.

Jim: I’ll keep it in mind. I didn’t make the Monti connection between The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl. Good eye. You’re right; I love Martel.

So let’s jump into it. Could you give a brief synopsis of the film? Where and when do we find ourselves as the story commences? Who are the main characters, what are they doing, and what do they hope to find?

Taylor: Absolutely! As it stands, I’m still within 24 hours of completing the film for the first time in years as well as the novel on which it is based. There are a number of minor and major differences between the two. I’m sure I’ll delve into a handful of those later (the stadium scene is not in the book for instance), if I misspeak please correct me as the two are blending a bit.

The film revolves around Benjamin Esposito (played by Ricardo Darin), a retired legal counselor with a longstanding and unacted-upon love for Judge Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) and the proverbial “one last case” that all great men with long careers in criminal justice seem to have. Those two items, the final case and the unacted upon love–invite the title of The Secret in Their Eyes quite clearly. Whether the looks between Hastings and Esposito or Isidoro Gomez to Liliana Coloto. The motif, which I think is a strong one, is laid bare quickly for all. And at some level that is the entirety of the point of the story, the meaning in those looks, and where the differences between them lie.

As the film begins, we are introduced to the oldest timeline in this dually progressing narrative. The starting images are a brutal flashback of the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo, notably her first role in a film). This case is the center of our narrative, and the life of our protagonist as far as we see it in the film. We then quickly skirt to Esposito; the year is 1999 and it is the day of his retirement. He fittingly avoids his own retirement party, and inquires with Hastings about being loaned out his old typewriter, with an A key that doesn’t work. With this typewriter in hand, he can properly pursue being a novelist. His writing of the story is our backdrop to the simultaneous timeline, and though a common refrain in these sorts of mysteries. One that I found worked elegantly here, mostly. It seems that in this act of reflection Esposito is searching for peace. Morales on the other hand, desires justice.

Jim: I’m of two minds about the effectiveness of the “novel” that Esposito is writing. What does it contribute to the film’s narrative structure? It’s a useful device for externalizing Esposito’s internal struggle about how to cope with his feelings for his old boss Irene, and how those feelings are entangled with his obsessions about the old Morales case. But I can’t help thinking nothing would be lost if it were entirely excised. Not to mention how obviously short it is, which the “old” Morales points out. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but it never means as much to the story as it seems Campanella wants it to mean. I do like the earliest scenes of him writing it in his notebook, before he reacquires the clunky typewriter. When he tries to capture his feelings for Irene, he rips the pages out and crumples them up, clearly dissatisfied, but when he tries to describe what he imagines was the scene between Liliana and Morales during their final morning together, and is equally as unsatisfied, he doesn’t tear the page out, but removes it tenderly. He’s frustrated with his renditions of both, but there’s a reverence for the details of the Morales story he doesn’t feel for his own, which is, of course, in important point of tension in the film as a whole.

But to back up a bit, I have to say I really enjoyed this film, and thank you for bringing into the conversation. Crime dramas aren’t my thing at all, but Campanella brings a sensitivity to this that’s extraordinary, which he portrays so well in the looks the characters exchange. There’s a darkness to this film I love, a density formed by the compression of time and la pasión, of history, and the romance history grinds beneath its heel.

Speaking of history, the film is both backgrounded and foregrounded by the Dirty War in the 1970s, of which Argentina was a part. As Esposito and his collegue Sandoval zero in on Liliana’s murderer, some of the ugliness of this time in Argentina’s history comes directly into play. Since Lucrecia Martel and other Argentine directors have educated me to the insidious effects of that time on the psyche of all Argentinians, I recognized it right away. Do you think that to viewers who aren’t aware of it, like we Americans, it’s handled effectively?

Taylor: Your point on excising the framing device is well taken. I suspect that at its removal the dual timeline of the narrative would then not be in play as a consequence. Such a seismic shift from the source material I think (though we’ll never really know) would prove fatal to the many aspects of the narrative that do work in this presentation. Though it can be boiled down to a framing device I think it also allows a point of observation to the viewer on the thematic and personal content that is complimentary. We don’t just straddle years here but decades and a sequential procedural through these events in that way would underscore a lot of the pieces and pacing choices that moved me and kept me engrossed. On the other side of the book, I don’t think Campanella was precious with the source material so much as the feel and the events. A lot of choices he made I find to be astute reinterpretations of the narrative that takes largely uncinematic material (internal narration to the reader) and reappraises it to be both visually engaging and propulsive. At a basic level I just don’t see how you can tell the story in the novel that I read without using the device. It is the entire foundation the project is built on. Being able to jog between those decades without even a label of what year it is, is very, very rare. At least in my viewing habits. I’d be much less interested in a beat-by-beat timeline procedural of these lived events than the story presented here.

I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Ah yes, la pasión! It’s such a basic premise to provide to characters but so rich and universal. A dense darkness is found in so many frames of the film. One of the most memorable of which for me is a scene near the end in the shed in which Morales, Esposito, and Gomez are in frame simultaneously. The pathos each character walks into that frame with, their entangled lives, their shared unhappiness. The despair of that shadow cast room, with its deep focus and fuzzy edges is tangible. Something you could practically take a scoop of. I will say “certain” crime dramas are very much my thing. This, Mosaic, Millennium, and Unsane to name a few are in that stratosphere of excellence in this psychological crime drama subgenre.

Great question. Obviously, I have a subjective reaction here that may be off. But so far as I can tell rather than make the Dirty War a pointed fulcrum of the inexcusable abusive behavior of the Argentine government, Campanella instead goes for a broader visually transitive abuse. Letting the viewer feel the unrest on the periphery of society, allowing us to see the kill squads in action in Sandoval’s death, the racism exhibited in the beating of the innocent construction workers, and the depth of corruption in the subsequent freeing of Gomez after they’d finally put him away. That is a long way of saying I think he handled it most effectively because he prioritized allowing us to “feel” it, rather than making us “know” it. Do you think it was handled well?

Jim: Generally, yes, but I wonder how much Americans, especially, understand the concept of state-sponsored terror. Though the film doesn’t extend it out as far, I read Gomez as someone who’s been on the government payroll since before the events of the film. Perhaps the book is more explicit about this. The point is that Gomez, the suspect whom Esposito, Sandoval, and Hasting reel in for the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto, is a regime goon. It embarrasses the government that he’s been revealed. The point isn’t whether he committed the crime or not, because that’s a forgone conclusion at the point he whips his dick out and declares his dominance, but whether he manages to save his own skin after he’s hung out to dry. The extent of dehumanization here is alarming. So to answer your question, I think the monsters are evident enough, though the system that enables them remains mostly faceless, except for Romano – the most crooked judge – who lets Gomez go. Romano’s a slick, memorable character, when he should be a lot scarier, and more forgettable. His smirks are too cute, his retorts too clever, for such a stupid, craven man. But Campanella leans more toward theatricality than naturalism, a point I do find tiresome with certain characters.

To your first point above, I see no reason why the dual timeline would be impossible without Esposito’s novel. Plenty of films have dual timelines, with no characters writing novels. But yeah, if it’s part of the film’s source material, so be it. As I see it, it’s not so much a diminution as an insignificant excess.

But let’s stick with Gomez. Esposito and Sandoval defy judge Fortuna’s command not to pursue Gomez, and visit the town of Chivilcoy, where they steal their way into Gomez’s mother’s home, looking for evidence. It’s easily the funniest segment of the film, though I do have to say that Campanella keeps an effective balance between the horrible and the humorous throughout. The only useful thing they find are some letters written from Gomez to his mother, the portent of which eludes them for days, until Sandoval divines from them Gomez’s pasión for football, or soccer. This leads us to the film’s most astonishing episode of cinematic bravura, at the stadium. Set up this scene for me, Taylor. It is pretty singularly amazing, the point on which the entire narrative turns.

Taylor: First I should elucidate in greater detail some of the background of Gomez’s release. I can see how with only the film to lean on you would get that feeling. Gomez took a construction job at a 20 floor building in Buenos Aires, to follow Liliana into the city. His murder of her is unclear in it’s premeditation but of the rape one can have no doubt. He came to the city specifically to commit that atrocity. If you recall our previous interaction with Romano, in which Esposito confronts him and the two are held back from fighting by a crowd of people. Esposito tells Romano he is going to report him, for ordering the beatings of two innocent workers doing a job at Liliana’s neighbors apartment. He files that complaint and Romano is removed from his position as Judge. But he has a decorated uncle from the army in his family. Instead of being destitute Romano is relocated to head up a position in State Intelligence. In this new position he can continue to abuse power, but this time unchecked and without a way for formal reprisal. As time goes on eventually Gomez surfaces in the Argentine prison system, and Romano has a chance to get even with Esposito. He can use a piece of legislation to free a political prisoner (due to the nature of corruption he can change anyone in the prison system to the designated inmate status to allow them to be released into his employ.). Thus he frees the guilty man in the case that caused his fall from grace. Not for any reason other than to get even with that son of a bitch Esposito. This is also a precursor to the death of Sandoval, which directly correlates with when Morales kidnaps Gomez. Romano is sure that Esposito has killed him to get back at Romano and thus orders a kill squad to his apartment. I do like the depiction of evil being a man that you would have a hard time picking out a lineup on the suspicion of war crimes at first glance. Though theatrical I think there’s a truth there of how these people are perceived while at the heights of their power. Duterte’s current regime springs to mind with this type of maniacal whimsy.

Oh boy, you’re putting a lot of responsibility in my fingertips. Alright as you mentioned Sandoval is at a local watering hole with the stolen evidence,  Esposito bursts into the bar yelling at him for this. Sandoval urges him to calm down, and when he’s finally quieted down, he introduces Esposito to another denizen of this local haunt. Whom he inquires the meaning of the names in the letters that Gomez had written. This upstanding notary immediately begins to recount the position and year of the footballers. Sandoval and Esposito now seemingly know how they will locate Gomez, at the Tomas Duco Stadium. The scene begins at night flying over Buenos Aires with a looming helicopter shot that dips through thin clouds and alights on a play on the football (soccer for your American readers) pitch. An attempt on goal is made and it bounces off the crossbar, our camera swoops deeper and while looking 90 degrees down directly our editor Campanella himself seamlessly blends from a helicopter shot to a robotic arm crane shot that zooms along the faces of an enamored crowd. If you watch closely you can see a CG transition as the camera flips during this scene. This robotic arm crane shot switches to a handheld camera as we land between Esposito and Sandoval. They are frustrated, and finger the wrong man. As they walk back to their spots the camera almost accidentally profiles a close up of Gomez’s face on the right portion of the screen and we see in the deeper frame Esposito as he realizes it’s him. They charge back toward the camera, a goal is scored, the handheld camera shakes raucously with the crowd and now we’re in a proper chase. This introduces a long tracking shot with no break mainly following Sandoval in pursuit of Gomez. There are a handful of things I absolutely love here, firstly the confrontation with Baez as a practical way for Javier Godino, who plays Gomez, to reset and rest and for the cameraman himself to get a breather. The next is when we follow Gomez out of the bathroom after bashing Sandoval’s face on the wall and shoving Esposito into a corner. He runs down some steps and we see him in a beautifully performed deep shot confronted by police, he turns and runs back up, meeting the camera. Now he has to jump off this floor and as the camera swoops from one ledge to the other and pitches down 90 degrees again like the helicopter we see CG being used to stitch it together for one continuous-feeling shot. He falls and our cameraman subsequently falls behind him allowing the viewer to feel the drop and the chase physically. Gomez then runs onto the pitch and is tripped by a player before being placed under arrest at the end of a police baton. It’s an arresting sequence and one of my favorite extended scenes in all of cinema.

Jim: Right, it’s that point right after the camera passes over the end of the field and into the stadium, a direct 90 degrees down, where the splice is. It just makes sense, to transition during the blurry bit. But what’s remarkable about that sequence, to me anyhow, is how most of the bravura doesn’t steal the scene. The interior spaces of the characters, their thoughts and anxieties and relations to the hundreds of bodies circulating around them is always primary. Esposito’s urgency, Sandoval’s cunning, Gomez’s terror, the way each of them navigates the massive concrete structure, are all in advance of the film craft. All the amazing tech stuff is entirely in service of the experiences of the characters. It’s pretty beautiful. It makes me think of Noé.

I think there are three critical character angles any discussion of this film has to include, maybe even a fourth, if you include Sandoval. Esposito observes Irene, obviously, since he’s infatuated with her, but it’s through his eyes we also observe Morales. Sandoval is independent of Esposito’s perspective, it feels to me. He exists in his own right. Maybe that’s why his death, his murder, feels so devastating. Through his eyes, we were given an alternative to Esposito’s view. The film noticeably darkens after his death, and we’re alone with Benjamin.

Esposito’s infatuation with Irene, and its frustration, seems shaped by a class separation, which Esposito doesn’t dare bridge, even when Irene’s ardor is clear. The way class and politics dominates these peoples’ lives is tragic.

But more than Irene, Esposito is obsessed with Morales. I think Benjamin recognizes in Morales a tragic version of himself, an externalization of his own internal yearnings, except that both men mix up, and ultimately spoil, the point of mourning, as does all Argentina.

In the spaces between the principal characters, there are loads of metaphors about the nature of Argentine society specifically, and western cultures more generally. Did any of that stand out to you?

Taylor: That’s a great point. While the logistics and cinematography are entirely enamoring it is the interiority of these characters that draws us with such intent into the scene as it unfolds. And more specifically, it doesn’t overshadow but rather embellishes and brings out the feelings. Fascinating, you managed to make me love that scene even more. I resonate with your comment on Noé deeply. His camera choreography is second to none.

I have to largely agree with your comments here. I hate having to digress again, but just so you know where I’m coming from it’s extremely difficult to separate the characters in the book from the characters within the movie. And while they’re not “very” different, they are indeed different, as are quite a few crucial thematic points, and specific points that are hammered home. So restricting myself to just the film, I will say firstly that a large amount of the context of the class separation between Benjamin and Irene is lost on our American ears. Like so many Latin-based languages outside English, there is an enormous amount of information to be gleaned from the article preceding these spoken words between them as well in the word choices. To my ears this dance of class and rank that I know is present is entirely lost. As to deeper metaphors about society. I think outside the experience between Irene and Benjamin, the clearest illustrations are, the seeming expansion of wealth in Buenos Aires against the poverty of the working class, the racism in the region(which interestingly enough Campanella may have chosen to reframe, as in the book Morales was an around 6′ tall, fair haired fellow.), the systemic brutality that is only challenged by individuals in regards to the two men beaten to force them to confess, and perhaps most plainly the clear delineation of who has wealth and who doesn’t–by the mere ownership of a car. Was there anything I didn’t mention that stood out to you, or anything that I did that have you a keen read on?

Jim: I was particularly taken by the way Campanella arranges the big reveal scene, when Esposito discovers what Morales really did with Gomez. Earlier, Morales tells Esposito that he kidnapped and killed Gomez, but as Esposito reflects on this, including things Morales had told him years prior, he doubts the confession. Morales had told him back in ’74 (or thereabouts, I forget the exact years) he didn’t want Gomez executed, but that he wanted him to live “a life full of nothingness,” which is, ultimately, what Morales ensures Gomez suffers.

But what’s stunning about that scene, when Esposito discovers the homemade prison in which Morales has confined Gomez for twenty-five years, is the impression of them both being imprisoned, of Morales and Gomez sharing that confinement. Because isn’t that what happens in a society when the justice system collapses? Everyone, the victims, the criminals, the bystanders, the corrupt officials, everyone, becomes a prisoner, confined by guilt, shame, indifference and inhumanity. Innocence dies completely. Morales’ homemade prison is a physical manifestation of what each citizen experiences cognitively and emotionally. Everyone is locked away in their own heads (Morales refuses to talk to Gomez, which is the worst punishment), atoning silently for their collective sins. This has been a constant theme in stories out of places like Germany and the old Soviet-bloc countries. And I’ll bring up Lucrecia Martel again, Campanella’s fellow-Argentinian, whose two films La Cienaga and The Headless Woman are entirely about this theme, both set in an otherworldly, purgatory-like place where the inhabitants are hollowed-out and zombie-like, their humanity literally stripped away after so many years of living in a society where nothing matters except survival. “A life full of nothingness” indeed.

I do want to say a few words about Sandoval, too, Esposito’s drunken compatriot and fellow clerk. I’m sure there’s much about him I’m not getting the cultural references to, but he’s clearly the rebel character, an unabashed anarchist who has little respect for the formal rules of the game. But he’s smart, honest, and honorable, all the things society would like to beat out of him. That he’s literally sacrificed (maybe even self-sacrificed), held up like an offering to a vengeful god, means as much to the gravity of this story as any other part. And he’s the comic relief. Sandoval is the smart, funny insubordinate, who cracks the case and pays for it with his life. I love Sandoval.

Take things where you want to, Taylor. I’ve been directing too much. Frame the film in the terms that best describe how it impresses you.

Taylor: It’s a brilliant shot, reminiscent of the depth of field chase scene when Gomez goes down the stairs briefly, your tens of feet away from the center of focus but have a particularly clear feeling evoked by the shot. The lighting, sound design, and physical acting each echo back at the viewer a depth of despair. Not one that either man is enacting on the other but despair for each, at the sense of this is what it’s come to. And our stenographer Esposito, clearly affected by the horror, but not party to it. I don’t think I was particularly conscious of the macro metaphor in play there as I was so caught up with the interiority of each character. This is juicy. I need to ruminate on it further.

I too love Sandoval. He frequently goes where Esposito can’t and comes back with the knowledge, or pushes him over the edge in ways that he wouldn’t go otherwise. Such as the comedic theft from Gomez’s mother that you previously referenced. Moving both Esposito forward and the case along despite his personal problems and demons. An interesting anecdote on the topic of Sandoval would be that originally the confrontation with Gomez in which he bares himself and screams that he did it while interrogated was originally performed by a very, very, very drunken Sandoval against Esposito’s will. The nuances to the changes in the adapted screenplay are something I haven’t unlocked yet. There’s something deeper than just “this works better in a movie” going on. There’s clear choices Campanella made to get at a point that partially eludes me.

I’d like to spend some time addressing the immaculate location shooting. There’s not one instance of disbelief at the authenticity of what I’m viewing. Everything appears to be tangible. These landmarks each have meaning after the viewing too, which is somewhat unique. We were just talking about that shed and the look of those homemade prison bars. The stadium and voluminous concrete structure, metaphorical in and of itself but especially in context to the Dirty War. In which many citizens are watching on while a few men fight to win a game on a field, which is eventually where our arrest takes place. From the grimy night time bar, to the looming pillars and marble slab floors of the court. It’s just background, but its reliability begets a deeper trust in the very image. A magnitude, a heft belongs to the film through these locations and their incorporation to the body of the film.

And I think we must address the maestro, Campanella himself. The Secret in Their Eyes sits as the most prominent achievement in his oeuvre by far. Neither before or since has he made a film that resonated so deeply at home and outside of Argentina. None have had the prominent staggering bravura of the stadium scene. He Directs, Writes (adapted screenplay), Produces, and serves as Editor (for the first and only time in his entire career here). Every single drop of the film we see has gone through his hands in different forms and at different levels. It feels sculpted to me, hand crafted, and lovingly stitched. I found the editing in the film to be tremendous, at times fascinating. I don’t really know how to contextualize such great potential from him as an editor, being put aside entirely. It seems to me he is dedicated first and foremost to storytelling and if you have exhibited greatness with one of those tools it’s odd to me that he would put it down. Is there anything here you want to expound on or help me make sense of here?

Jim: The editing really is excellent, I agree. I’ll tell you, before I watched the film the first time, I read the plot summary at Wikipedia. It overwhelmed me a little, with all these characters and timelines and history and various moving parts, and it worried me a little, thinking the film would be a confusing jumble. But a lot of credit, if not all of it, has to go to the editing for crafting a fluid path through all those elements, so that I never felt lost, or at least not for very long. It’s quite an achievement.

The locations and sets are, like you say, entirely authentic. The massive, sublime quality of the stadium, the train station, and the courthouse building are breathtaking; they miniaturize the people inside them. I don’t know how intentional it is or what to take from it, but the architecture dwarfs the people, perhaps as a reinforcement of the other oppressive and diminishing forces in the story. There’s a scene where Esposito is speaking with Irene, while an intern lurks nearby, waiting to report something to Benjamin. They’re standing on a mezzanine of the courthouse, overlooking the cavernous atrium at its center. Right behind them is an enormous, hulking base of a single column – merely the base of only one of many columns – on the other side of which the intern waits, and it lends this palpable sense of mass and gravity pressing down and looming over the characters’ tiny selves. It evokes an awesome sense of solemnity.

Provided the perfect score you award this film at Letterboxd, maybe you’ll have nothing to answer this with, but is there anything in the film you don’t like, or find deficient?

Taylor: That’s interesting. You’re right, though our “heroic” main characters are at some level larger than life, the masses are miniature. I think you’re really onto something there. I have to say a lot of the non-primary side characters were miniaturized in the novel as well. I’m sure there’s a choice Campanella made there specifically to evoke the feeling you’re referencing. The subjectivity of importance literally being contrasted by their diminution next to a column. A metaphor toward impermanence, and the drop in the bucket this case is. Like using a pail to slow the Titanic from sinking.

A bit off topic but one of my favorite things in this story is how Sandoval sews together the case files to be bound. It’s this little detail that informs us of a process, his role in the building, and visually transmits the feeling of sewing a cold case shut.

For clarity I should specify at least this range of score. When I use a 5 on Letterboxd it’s not necessarily perfect. I probably only have around 3 ‘perfect’ films, I’d have to double check. Anything between 95-100/100 I translate to 5 stars. The Secret in Their Eyes is around a 95-96 for me upon rewatch. I love the question; I’ve been thinking about this since last Friday. I don’t think there’s anything I truly dislike. On the topic of deficiencies though, yes. I think there are at least several. Here’s a few that have come to mind.

1. I think that some of the clarity of who’s who in the courthouse in the first third of the film is not as tight as it could be to provide clarity.

2. I really, really wish we’d gotten to see Sandoval do the drunken interrogation as it was written in the novel, it was a buffoonish slapstick scene that I think would have translated in these performers’ hands into something really special.

3. The transference of city to countryside could have been a bit more experiential to the viewer, I tend to like it when a film “feels” like it took you somewhere new and different. That didn’t really happen here, even when we’re at the pivotal scene at the end it didn’t feel tangible just how far away from the city we were. The same goes for ‘where’ the stadium is, ‘where’ the scene of the crime is, etc.

4. I’d have liked to see Esposito file the report on Romano, that sequence in particular for the weight it has doesn’t build as cleanly as I would like. If Campanella could have shot it as a multilayered scene without telegraphing the importance of the moment, I think that would have paid dividends in grounding us into the rigmarole this entire system is subject to. Rather than just let the nameless cases sit in piles, we could have seen one besides our central case be made to contextualize the near hopelessness they’re drowning in.

5. Lastly, there’s something off about the depiction of Hastings. She seems to be in a sort of uncanny valley of agency. More prop than person with interiority. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I simultaneously got to know her too well without really knowing her at all. For example, we get to know Sandoval’s haunts, his wife (who is understandably fed up with him and his antics), his apartment, etc. We know what Hasting’s office looks like, we see her in other locations but they don’t feel like her locations. She’s almost always secondary, never the dominant character foundational to the location being introduced.

Did you have any similar feelings? I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything you disliked or found deficient outside what I’ve listed as well.

Jim: Well, first I’ll start inside and endorse your last point. Look, a lot of films are guy films, and that’s fine. Campanella is very comfortable with all his male characters, the women not so much. Aside from Irene Hastings, there really aren’t any female characters, except Morales’ wife Liliana, Sandoval’s wife, and Gomez’s mother, all of whom are only representations of general female roles in society, not individuals. Again, that’s fine, but it does leave out the critical perspectives of fifty percent of the population. But then there’s Irene. As you say, Irene is never a complete character. She’s placeless and incidental. She’s only there to serve as a vessel for Benjamin’s various emotional torments. And that’s not fine, and is my biggest problem with the film. Irene Hasting’s is an important character, but it feels like every time the camera turns to her, it’s not to explore her, not to find out more about her, not to even recognize her as doing anything in the scene, except being a respondent to Esposito. The only time she seizes the action within a scene is during the interrogation, when she sexually intimidates Gomez. It’s not the best look.

But I don’t want to make too much of that. It’s an extraordinary film. Like a great many male directors, Campanella isn’t very good with female representation. I’m not gonna take it all down for that.

I have a little bit of a problem with the broadly over-dramatized script. Everything feels just a little too ripe and overplayed, but that’s probably just me. That interrogation scene is a prime example, as is the train station departure scene. The strings feel a little too strained there, as Campanella tries to squeeze out more consequence from a scene that it can realistically give. I could complain some about the aging effects, but it’s too common a problem.

The first time I watched it, I liked the compositional style of having something or someone partially foregrounded and out of focus, while the focus is on the middle-grounded subject. The second time I watched it, I realized how overused it is. It’s cool, but excessive.

It feels like we’re nearing the end, so I’ll let you wrap up talk about the film. Anything else on your mind about it?

Taylor: I too found the train scene forced. There’s simultaneously too much reverence toward the source material in making the train a more important part of the narrative and a lack of believability that these characters as we’ve seen them thus far, behaved in that way. I actually didn’t much mind the aging make-up, it did a swell job when the character is in the background. On close-up though, and especially with Morales it was noticeably off. I’m a sucker for this contrasted depth style of cinematography. While I agree it does at times feel overplayed, it just consistently looks damn good, and allows multiple reference points within the scene to be used effectively. I can appreciate the sentiment though.

There’s one lingering thing I’d regret not mentioning. The intimidation elevator scene with Hasting’s, Esposito, and Gomez. It’s played completely silent, and relies on exchanged looks and Hasting’s to transfer a sense of terror to the viewer. It cements the film’s tone without drawing more attention to itself than it needs, both in its execution and in that once it’s over it isn’t referenced within the film. It just is.

Thanks so much for having me and allowing me to bring this title. It’s been a great conversation to process my thoughts and refocus on it with intent. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I picked it back up. And to those reading that would like to watch The Secret in Their Eyes it’s currently available to rent from most VOD platforms.

Jim: Thanks for accepting the invitation! But before we wrap up, I want to give you the same opportunity I gave Michael last time to promote your favorite five films from 2020.

Taylor: I’d be delighted to share them, thanks! Top 5 in descending order:

5. J’Accuse or An Officer and a Spy (Roman Polanski)

An adaptation of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, two of my favorite performances of the year from actors Louis Garrel and Jean Dujardin. If one is able to separate art from artist, you’ll find a fantastic historical film. With lurid outdoor cinematography and a propulsive pace. At this time, I think it’s still unreleased in North America.

4. Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh’s flitting walk and talk built on improvised conversation, gorgeous cinematography, and delightful turns by Streep, Wiest, and Bergen. There’s not one bad performance, and it oozes breezy coolness. One of the most rewatchable films released in 2020 for me. It’s available on HBO Max.

3. Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald)

I’m cheating here as Normal People is a limited series. But since it was in my top 5 on the show, I’ll include it here. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal play Marianne and Connell, two students who begin a complicated relationship in high school that morphs over the period of their early adulthood years. It’s one of the moving narratives I experienced in 2020, and continually find myself drawn back to its dramatic power and emotional gravitas. It’s available to stream on Hulu.

2. My Mexican Bretzel (Nuria Giménez)

My Mexican Bretzel is close to unexplainable, it weaves together home footage, diary entries, and clever sound design into something bigger than life and more personal than a true story. It’s one of my absolute favorite discoveries and continues to elude my abilities to explain it coherently. At this time, I believe it is unreleased in North America. It was briefly available on an independent film channel as part of Prime Video, but I’m unable to locate it there now.

1. Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Directorial Debut Last and First Men is an adaptation of noted Science Fiction writer Olaf Stapledon’s book by the same name. In which our species has evolved, gone off planet, and is attempting to communicate with us across millennia as they begin to go extinct in the hopes that with our actions in the past we can save them. The camera lingers on gargantuan concrete structures, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes a well of emotionality, and Tilda Swinton’s almost otherworldly narration tells us of these ancestors’ lives and experiences. Closer to a Visual Album than a narrative feature, this is my most treasured experience with a screen from 2020, and something that I’ll never forget. Though sadly this is a posthumous release, it is a remarkably fitting headstone for Jóhannsson. A feeling I’m confident anyone who sees it will share. Available thru Physical Media purchases from European Amazon Sellers, but unavailable in North America currently.

Since Michael already pried 1-5 out of you, could you share your 6-10?

Jim: I really look forward to J’accuse. Louis never fails.

Six through ten? Sure. Ten is proudly Bruno Dumont’s last film Jeanne (Joan of Arc in the US), the weirdest take on that tale you’ll ever see. Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous so awed me when I saw it, I knew it would make the list, here at nine, about a teen romance developing and enduring in the middle of an absurd, but no less horrifying, wave of inexplicable terror. At eight is Justine Triet’s Sibyl, about an out-of-bounds psychotherapist. Black Bear was another pleasant surprise, from director Lawrence Michael Levine, starring Aubrey Plaza. Feverish and surreal, it’s a metatextual story about inspiration and the creative process that I really love, so it’s secure at seven. Six is Babyteeth, from Shannon Murphy, starring Eliza Scanlen, a girl with terminal cancer who isn’t dying the way some might prefer.

I really enjoyed talking with you about The Secret in Their Eyes, Taylor. Thanks for bringing it. Along with the Martel films I mentioned, I also want to recommend The Official Story, from Argentinian director Luis Puenzo. Written during the twilight of the right-wing dictatorship implied in The Secret in Their Eyes, it was filmed during the dawn of a recovering democracy, in the mid-‘80s. The title might suggest it’s a documentary, or adjacent, but it’s not. It’s the story of a teacher searching for the true identity of her adopted daughter. If Argentine cinema and history are of interest, do not miss it.

Thanks, Taylor. Lots of fun. We’ll have to do it again.

Taylor: So long, Jim! Thanks again for going through this one with me. Looks like I have some homework in Jeanne and Spontaneous. I loved Babyteeth too. Puenzo film is now on my Watchlist, sounds intriguing. I look forward to doing this again, be well!

The Secret in Their Eyes Trailer

The Secret in Their Eyes is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers.

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