I, Portrait (2021)

Rating: C-

Dir: Nathan Hill
Star: Natalie Heslop, Sienna Stass, Nathan Hill, Damon Hunter

After the cheerful low-budget pleasures of Lady Terror, writer/director Hill sent me one of his earlier movies, which goes along not dissimilar lines. This isn’t quite as successful, mostly down to major pacing issues. We’re here for the deliciously excessive melodrama, and that only shows up in the necessary volume, down the final stretch. Before that, we get too many scenes that serve no apparent purpose, such as five minutes spent on what appears to be a leading contender for Australia’s Most Awkward Interview of 2021. There are pleasures to be had, not least a finale which ends up being surprisingly grim. However, the viewer will need to be patient to reach them.

It’s the story of artist Carmen McKenna (Heslop) and her boyfriend, Julian Ryde (Hill), who is an agent for actors. An old schoolfriend of Carmen’s, Stephanie Mitchell (Stass), shows up unexpectedly on the doorstep, and Carmen agrees to let her stay for a few days. I must say, Aussies are just so damn welcoming. In those circumstances, I’d be all “Sure, let’s go get a beer sometime. Can I drive you to your hotel?” And my British reserve would be completely correct to do so, going by what happens thereafter. It eventually becomes clear that Stephanie has an ulterior motive, and is not there simply to get re-acquainted with an old pal. She also has issues. Or, more relevantly Issues, with a capital I.

Put it this way: Stephanie seems to regard Single White Female as an instruction manual, rather than a cautionary tale. See her suggestive banana eating (top) in front of Julian, and things only escalate from there. In particular, we get the “oral sex from the wrong girl” scene out of SWF. If we’re taking notes, the lesson to be learned is that, if the person giving you a blow-job has the sheets pulled over their head… it’s probably a bit of a red flag. Carmen eventually figures out there’s something off with her friend, and asks Stephanie to leave. Which, of course, she doesn’t. Meanwhile, Julian gets a call from a pal who has figured out Stephanie’s real identity, and that’s when things finally kick off. About 45 minutes too late.

For I definitely feel this needs to embrace its inherent insanity, both quicker and harder. There’s a scene where Stephanie visits her shrink, that does a good job of establishing her problems and fragile mental state. Again, this needs to have shown up considerably earlier. It’d also have given Stass more chance to show off her psycho acting skills, which are fun to watch. Instead, there’s a sequence of Carmen and Stephanie going horse-riding, for example, and an odd sub-plot about Carmen’s paintings predicting the future, which feels like it ought to be more significant than it actually ends up being. Occasional issues with audio and a couple of particularly unimpressive bits of fight choreography don’t help, leaving this one short of my desired level of whelm.