By: Cormac Riordan, Staff Writer
Like a lot of us, one solace in this new era for me has been Animal Crossing: New Horizons. This peaceful world of foraging and animal pals is both escapist and rewarding, something that has united my recent film, music, and book selections. From the island paradise of Portrait of a Lady on Fire to the sense of community fostered by the March sisters in Little Women, my current media diet is not just calming visions but works that encourage a sense of community.
It’s hard not to see the March sisters, and others like Marmee and Laurie, in the helpful and loving visages of your animal companions. Although when Louisa May Alcott wrote her magnum opus in 1868/9, I don’t think digital frogs and bears were on her mind, both communities have similar ethea. The chapter in which the sisters desire a world where they can do as they please and ignore their chores strikes the most similarities. Their mother agrees and allows herself and the help to take care of the work around the house, only for the girls to realize that a balance of work and play is what makes the downtime special. New Horizons works in a similar way, combining tasks like cleaning up your island with a rewards system and an arrestingly adorable style. Just like how doing “chores”, more or less, in Animal Crossing becomes less chore-like and more rewarding, one can imagine having to work becomes much more pleasant when joined by Jo or Beth.
Sharing the island aesthetic with New Horizons and the bond between women of Little Women, Céline Sciamma’s newest feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is now available on Hulu. I caught up with it last year, but have been waiting anxiously for it to be widely available to revisit. It packs just as much emotional punch the second time, the setting as lush and picturesque as my memory served. There’s so much to praise about Sciamma’s vision of two women finding each other in the late 1700s, from the incredibly sparse yet devastating diegetic score to way the cinematographer, Claire Mathon, captures the two leads surrounded by this natural beauty. But it is in those two lead performances that the movie stands almost completely. Noémie Merlant is wonderful as the hired portrait maker, quiet and subdued by never vage. Who really steals the show, however, is Adèle Haenel as the woman Merlant’s character is hired to paint. Haenel is Sciamma’s ex, and that energy both informs and compliments the film. There is a final moment, quite literally the last shot of the film, that I won’t spoil here, but I can’t imagine anyone coming away from that long take on Haenel and be able to doubt her incredible talents.
“Heaven/Heaven is a place/a place where nothing/nothing ever happens” is a line David Byrne sings on a Talking Heads’ song called “Heaven”. The second song in the band’s incomparable concert film Stop Making Sense, when I heard those lyrics early this week two things struck me. Firstly, how Byrne’s words almost seem mocking right now, when we are all pretty much forced to do nothing. But secondly, how right he is about this idea of blissful emptiness, and how the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the book Little Women, and the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons reflect that idea. All of these works have quiet, peaceful moments where little happens, but the audience understands the significance of moments like when the women in Portrait argue over a Greek myth or in Little Women when much is made about pickled limes. One could argue in the case of the whole Animal Crossing franchise, that nothing does ever happen. But isn’t that kind of calming?