Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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One of the best festivals in a festival-heavy town, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s European Union Film Showcase is now in its 32nd year. Previous editions have featured the local premieres of favorites like Toni Erdmann, Cold War, and Everybody Knows. With 46 films, and something from each of the 28 EU member states, this year’s slate is particularly strong, including such high-profile titles as Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life and Czech director Václav Marhou’s much-anticipated adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird. Those are likely to get commercial releases in 2020, continuing the festival’s tradition as a sneak preview for arthouse frontrunners. But the lineup also includes quite a few films that are unlikely to appear on local screens again. The titles we’ve previewed this year are a selection of what looks to be a terrific festival.

CORPUS CHRISTI 

Directed by Jan KomasaPoland

Poland’s official submission for Oscar consideration is a faith-based drama that takes the familiar tropes of forgiveness and redemption into more difficult territory. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is a troubled 20-year-old in a juvenile detention center who’d like to become a priest, but no seminary will accept someone with his criminal record. When he’s released, Daniel gets involved with a rural church and ends up passing himself off as ordained when their elderly pastor falls ill. It gets more complicated: The townspeople are bitter about a widow whose husband they believe caused a car accident that killed six local teens. Bielenia has the striking features of a religious icon, which makes him a perfect match for this story of small-town faith and forgiveness.

Dec. 5 at 7:15 p.m., Dec. 8 at 5:45 p.m., and Dec. 12 at 5 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

DEERSKIN 

Directed by Quentin DupieuxFrance

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In this 76-minute thriller, the star gets instructions from a killer jacket. Georges (Jean Dujardin) is separated from his wife, and probably his faculties. He buys an expensive deerskin jacket and becomes so obsessed with the garment that he has conversations with it. And the jacket has a dream—it wants Georges to be the only person in the world wearing a jacket. As a means to this quixotic end, Georges pretends to be making a movie, in which he pays locals to hand over their jackets and films them swearing never to wear a jacket ever again. When he runs out of money, Georges convinces a pretty bartender (Adèle Haenel) to fund his crazy scheme. Georges may seem harmless enough, but a brassy score introduces a tension that suggests all is not whimsical. Director Quentin Dupieux made the 2010 horror movie Rubber, about a killer tire, and his latest is similarly high-concept. What makes Deerskin work so well is Dujardin (star of The Artist, an inferior movie about movie-making), who plays the absurd conceit with a straight face that makes his descent into madness all the more effective.

Dec. 6 at 7:10 p.m., Dec. 7 at 9:20 p.m., and Dec. 11 at 9:40 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Directed by Céline SciammaFrance

Slated for a commercial run on Valentine’s Day 2020, this austere period drama from director Céline Sciamma has gotten a lot of hot buzz on the festival circuit, but its embers burn slowly. Set in 18th-century Brittany, the temperature rises when Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of young Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for a potential suitor. The reluctant subject has sent another artist home packing, having refused to pose, so Marianne is taken on under the guise of a companion, and must capture her subject from memory, sneaking in sketches and brushwork when Héloïse isn’t looking. That secrecy lends itself to a sexual tension that sets the cold environment ablaze, and the leads develop their chemistry in enticing fits and starts. But the drama is undercut by a corny framing device that introduces Marianne as an art teacher whose memory is awakened when one of her students just happens to bring an unusual portrait out of storage. 

Dec. 8 at 8:15 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 7:10 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

THE WHISTLERS 

Directed by Corneliu PorumboiuRomania

Romania’s new wave is known for deathly dry humor and political commentary, all wrapped up in the bleak visuals of a dreary winter. But one of its prime directors has eschewed that for a slick, Tarantino-esque crime drama that’s gorgeous, grisly, and slyly hilarious. Director Corneliu Porumboiu gets a moderate budget for this jet-setting caper centered on a corrupt cop (Vlad Ivanov) who gets involved in a plot to spring a shady businessman from a prison in the Canary Islands. With lush landscapes, a stylishly photographed sex scene, and a pop soundtrack that includes Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” this seems like a far cry from Porumboiu’s usual wheelhouse. But the title conceit plays right into the director’s fascination with language: In order to elude police surveillance, the conspirators communicate using a vocabulary consisting of whistles. The Whistlers is smart and wildly entertaining, reveling in its bigger budget as thoroughly as it subverts conventional thriller tropes. 

Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 17 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

YOUNG AHMED 

Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc DardenneBelgium

The latest from the Dardenne brothers (Two Days, One Night) is a timely and loaded story about a Belgian teenager Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) who, under the influence of an extremist Imam, plots to kill his teacher (Myriem Akheddiou) and ends up in juvenile detention. The directors have experienced some controversy for what some say is portraying Islam in a bad light. But what the film presents, with the directors’ typical sensitivity and compassion, is a wildly divided faith: Everyone at a Muslim teacher’s meeting seems to have a different opinion on how best to worship. Ahmed’s particular struggle is inspired by his brother, who became a suicide bomber, but when he washes his hands after a dog licks them, it becomes clear that the boy’s fervor may be partly neurotic. If this sounds programmatic, it’s not; as always, the Dardennes immerse the viewer in lives that seem so real you could reach out and hug these characters as they search for structure and meaning in their lives. 

Dec. 14 at 5:15 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 7:20 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

THE TRUTH 

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-edaFrance

In any other festival, the latest from Japanese director Kore-eda (Shoplifters) would be a highlight, so it’s a measure of how strong this year’s lineup is that this solid all-star drama is among the weakest of the titles we previewed. Catherine Deneuve stars as Fabienne, a veteran actress who has just published a tell-all (or tell-most) memoir. To celebrate, her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) has come to visit with her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke, just kinda hanging out), himself a small-time actor. The self-reflexive plot revolves around Fabienne’s latest film, which depicts a tense family dynamic not unlike her own. The Truth is best when Deneuve and Binoche get to have it out with their mother-daughter relationship, but fans of Kore-eda will miss the aching, bittersweet tone that characterizes his best work.

Dec. 14 at 8:30 p.m. and Dec. 19 at 7:20 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

BAIT 

Directed by Mark JenkinUK

In one of the most visually striking films of the year, director Mark Jenkin tells a chilling story of gentrification in a Cornish fishing village. Martin (comedian Edward Rowe) and his brother Steven (Giles King) are among the last men working the sea in a town that now caters to tourists. Times are so hard that Martin has sold his boat, and Steven uses his to roam around drunk bachelor party revelers. Worse, the couple that bought their old family home has turned its working-class decor into nautical kitsch. In this remote milieu, tensions between struggling locals and wealthy tourists fuel a mutual resentment before things turn tragic. You can practically taste the salt water on the screen. And if its subject is a dying breed, so is its medium—Jenkins shot Bait on black-and-white 16mm film that he hand-developed. The imperfect grain and exposure provide the perfect canvas for weathered faces caught in a bitter, hopeless dynamic. 

Dec. 20 at 5:45 p.m. and Dec. 21 at 5 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

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