NYFF Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Rating: 4/4

On the first day of TIFF, I made a mistake. See, my schedule began simply enough. My first film was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. My third of the day? Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. However, for my second, I had a choice between Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The ode to the BongHive didn’t disappoint. I loved Parasite—every uneasy second of the picture. But there were five showings of that film at TIFF, and only three for Portrait. It took me until the New York Film Festival to rectify my grave error, and thank the Lord that I did. Because Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an immaculately executed simmering lesbian love story—gorgeous in image, and rendered in fine detail through a female gaze.

Set in 18th-century France, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter. However, when we first meet her she’s posing for a group of women artist—her students, as a model. Moreover, located at the back of her art room is a blue and grey portrait of a gowned woman on fire. A story exists behind it, and Sciamma’s narrative transports us back into time—to the moment Marianne washed up on the shores of Brittany to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

Portrait while a period drama, specifically depicts a time when women were married away to far-off nobles for land, prestige, and titles. Back then, to meet each other, there weren’t any newfangled dating apps like Tinder. In fact, in that slavish system there wasn’t much dating at all. Instead, nobles traded flattering portraits of one another as assurances to demonstrate a good match. From those, they… erm the man decided if he wished to marry. You can see how women were often left at the mercy of their obtrusive families, and of course the receiving nobleman too, unless in the rare instance the lady came from a richer more powerful background. Such explains why Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golinohired) hires Marianne to paint the rebellious subject. However, Héloïse has never allowed anyone to create her likeness, turning away painter after painter. Consequently, in an act of subterfuge, Marianne poses as a new walking companion for her so she can secretly paint the lady.

Unfortunately, capturing someone’s likeness from memory is incredibly difficult. So Marianne shares longer-and-longer furtive glances with Héloïse on their walks along the grassy coast, and with each look meant to memorize the reclusive lady’s face, their sexual desires rise. Unfortuantely, their burgeoning attraction remains apprehensive because of the time they live in, and their social statuses. While open lesbsenism wasn’t uncommon for the lower classes during the 18th century, for upper-class women—any such long-term relationship remained an impossibility. Even so, their passions build to a fiery pitch—most demonstrated when Héloïse’s dress becomes engulfed in flames from a campfire while sutuptous chants from onlookers echo around her. While she’s unscathed, the message to Marianne is made abundantly clear.

Another exploration of women’s lives during the period involves Sophie (Luàna Bajrami)—Héloïse’s servant. She’s pregnant, attempting any old-wives solution, i.e. forms of abortions to not give birth. The three form a close bond that transcends their respective classes, becoming sisters in a world that says a pregnant unwed woman is sinful and damaged, and a long-term lesbian relationship non-negotiable. Meanwhile, in the background, exists Claire Mathon’s beautiful cinematography: which mixes warm lighting that softly wraps around costume designer Dorothée Guiraud’s vibrant red and green dresses, and the expressive waves of fluttering desire that emits from each woman’s every expression. These elements make the astounding performances from Merlant, Haenel, and Bajrami all the more incredible and far-reaching, with every scene expressing the film’s ardent love story like an oiled portrait in the fashion of artists Marianne Loir or Angelica Kauffman

And while we know Marianne and Héloïse’s love cannot stand, their tryst is a daring example of Queer cinema seen through a female gaze. The stellar pieces of representation are most often displayed in the scenes of passion between Marianne and Héloïse. Because these moments aren’t portrayed with a lurid fascination of the anatomical—like a male filmmaker might of shot it—instead, they’re incredible expressions of sensuality and openness: of love and the unquestioned, and they perfectly describe Céline Sciamma’s indisputable masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

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