Movie Review – Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
After premiering at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, it won the Queer Palm, becoming the first entry by a woman to do so. It was nominated for 10 César Awards, including Best Film. Many thought it was the front-runner to be nominated for the Oscar for Best International Feature. Many thought it would be nominated in other categories. Alas, that wasn’t the case. At initial viewing, it’s easy to see how people would make those pronouncements. The film seems to be operating similarly or on the same level as Oscar nominees like Brokeback Mountain (2005), Carol (2015) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), which is to say this film is a queer or gay romance, set in the past, in this case the historical past. It’s about how culture or societal norms can only allow for two same-sex individuals the possibility of loving each other in private, in a specific place and time but no further, the freedom of this experience, as well as the frustration of it.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma no doubt has made a film that is exquisite in its look and design. Everything here is so superbly crafted, intricate and at times wondrous. As a queer romance, it is engaging, but, before one dismisses it, as the type of queer romance that’s been done to death, there are moments of surprise in this piece that definitely make it standout. There is one scene in particular that occurs about half-way through or so that shocked me and that represented a truly powerful moment. It could be described as horrific, but only as a matter of fact. It’s a moment that isn’t gory or ostentatious in any degree. The moment isn’t even that long. It’s rather quick, but it is rather disturbing in many respects.
Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, an art teacher who is posing for her students in some art class. She then flashes back to a time in her recent past that changed or inspired her current artwork. In addition to being a teacher, she’s also a painter who does portraits for people. She’s taken by boat to what seems like an island off the coast of France. There, she stays at a home of what appears to be a very wealthy woman. Yet, it appears to be a summer home, as no one really lives there, except a servant that maintains the property. Marianne is told that her job is to paint the portrait of the homeowner’s daughter. This painting is meant to be a kind of dowry for the daughter’s pending marriage to a man from Milan, Italy.
Adèle Haenel (The Unknown Girl and BPM) co-stars as Héloïse, the aforementioned daughter of the homeowner. She’s the one who is betrothed to the Milanese man. The problem is that she’s never met this man. She also has no desire to marry him. Before this betrothal, she was living in a convent, run by a bunch of nuns. She’d rather go back to that convent than marry this mystery man. She has a particular interest in music. She can’t play any music, but she does have an interest in it. She’d rather sit and listen to music than marry. She values her freedom in other words. In order to extend her freedom or at least delay the marriage, she refuses to sit and pose for the painting.
When she’s brought from the convent to her mother’s home on that island near France, she’s not allowed to leave the house unless she has a companion. This isn’t just to keep her there till the time she has to marry. It’s also to keep her alive. What’s revealed is that Héloïse’s sister died, allegedly from jumping off the cliffs nearby the house. Given the similar predicament, Héloïse’s mother is worried that the same could happen to Héloïse, so she’s not allowed out unless she has a companion.
Marianne is positioned as that companion. The homeowner tells Marianne that she is not to tell Héloïse that Marianne is only pretending to be her companion, while secretly she’s making this painting of her. The first third of the film is Marianne basically trying to maintain this charade or keep her painting of Héloïse a secret. It’s a rather flimsy premise, and thankfully it’s dispatched rather quickly, as the two young women take a liking toward each other and eventually recognize a physical attraction toward each other that mostly goes unspoken.
What proceeds are a series of scenes that highlight that unspoken, physical attraction that slowly burns throughout this film. Sciamma simply depicts that attraction in bright and compelling, as well as rather unique ways. It could be seen as small, quiet, delicate and nuanced ways. That attraction does culminate or climax in a sense, but, unlike Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and The Handmaiden (2016), there are no explicit sex scenes. There is nudity, but, there isn’t much here to engage any insidious male gaze or any kind of heterosexual male’s prurient interest.
There are other things that are evocative and sexy. Things that one wouldn’t assume to be evocative and sexy are in fact so in this film, things like saliva or drool as it were or an armpit. It’s so subtle and simmering in its tone yet so effective that Sciamma doesn’t need to be graphic. There is one grand moment though. It’s a scene that felt like the grand, sweeping moment that is the iconic scene in From Here to Eternity (1953). In that sense, there is a classic Hollywood feeling to this whole affair.
Lastly, if one is really into seeing a painting come to life, this is one to watch. Sciamma practically takes us through step-by-step of watching a painter make a painting. We almost painstakingly watch every brushstroke from beginning to end. It’s not exactly like watching The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, but it’s somewhere close. It’s as if The Joy of Painting where interrupted with scenes of a French, lesbian drama of the highest order.
Rated R for some nudity and sexuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.
Available on Hulu.