A Portrait (Joseph Morel, 2018) – Review

A link to the film can be found here – https://vimeo.com/295855674

Opening with one of the most confrontational opening shots in recent memory, Joseph Morel’s 2018 short film A Portrait cleverly prepares the audience for what is to come, a discomforting exploration of a character they’ll wish they could forget, but will be unable to. With lead actor Matthew Taylor staring straight into the lens, and into the souls of the audience members, as if intent on either killing them or baring his soul to them (good luck trying to tell the difference), all it takes is a few seconds to know what you’re in for. In a three minute single take, Taylor’s unnamed character explains himself, and his ideas. He describes his feeling of superiority above all, his discomfort with other people (it isn’t mentioned explicitly as such, but it is quite easy to figure out the connection between the two being that the man wants to distance himself from other people as much as humanly possible, whilst maintaining the yearning that we all have, instinctually, for human contact), and physically proves his extreme lack of ease with himself and these very ideas he is expressing with a demanding performance, that does admittedly slide oh-so-slightly over the top at one or two moments, but on the whole is wonderfully consistent and confrontational. For an opening shot to be so carefully suggestive and so confronting simultaneously had me very excited for what was to come, but I had seen nothing yet…

Cutting away (finally) from this deeply affecting opening shot, we see the same man now outside, standing alone. What we don’t know, however, is what he is about to do, which involves painting the town red… in the worst way possible. I really don’t want to ruin the surprises, so I won’t say more regarding the plot, and will use this opportunity to implore all of you to view the film! You can read further, though, as I won’t spoil anything here.

I must note that the cinematography by Callum Mills is gorgeous throughout, using an eclectic mix of handheld shots, all of which add a great deal of urgency and tension to what is unfolding, and these relaxed static shots that allow Matthew Taylor to open up more, and the sound design by Matthew Fowler is just as effective, balancing minimalistic realism with great, cacophonous, unkempt mixtures of sounds that are so brutally abrasive. As our leading man (I won’t call him a protagonist… his actions make that quite difficult) does more throughout the night, Mills’ detached, voyeuristic camera becomes more and more impressive, watching these sickening actions so intently, forcing these acts to become engraved within the mind of the innocent audience through the performances, the unflinching, observant camera and the great sound design. The editing by Zak Fenning, for the most part, is fit to match too. It stumbles here and there, some cuts just slightly off (not in the way, just a tad jarring/distracting – in a way that doesn’t feel intentional, and doesn’t really add anything to the tone), and the performances across the board are great, with the side characters fitting in perfectly. The lighting and the colour grading also add a great deal to the general discomfort in the film, giving the locations an unforgiving, seedy look that complements the actions of the characters. 

The use of direct audience address is also a pleasant surprise. Used at both ends of the film, with repetition subtly used to emphasise the changing perspective of the audience towards the lead (going from sympathetic towards him to more hateful, after seeing how he deals with these emotions he is evidently struggling with). It’s a surprisingly bold approach, especially coming from such a young director. It becomes quite clear that Taylor’s character feeds on the attention of the audience, he wants us to hate him – he even says so himself! – and this makes the already well layered portrayal of this character so much more memorable and disturbing beyond the surface, knowing that, unintentionally, the audience have added to his troubles by watching the film, by observing his actions. It’s a phenomenal moment, one that was unexpected and deeply moving, and the performance really helps to sell it. I never expected such a short film to have illustrating points to make about how the trauma of one can soon become the torment of many if not resolved, or to look at how films can have a direct influence on both the audience members and the people involved, how we can become so detached from what we are shown in films, and just how disturbing that really is. 

All I can say is that I wish it were longer, and that those couple of edits were just slightly trimmed more. This is a wonderful, brave short film, with the clarity over the vision necessary to make something truly memorable and moving. It’s just terrific work. It brings to mind the likes of Man Bites Dog and Dog Altogether (later adapted into Tyrannosaur, by Paddy Considine), among other wonderful films, so if you like either of those this is a must. 

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