Movie Review: 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'
French Academy Award contender lives up to awards reputation.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one hell of a great title. It evokes images of sex and primal desire. It suggests passion and excitement. It reads poetic and beautiful and it’s easy to imagine how lovely it must sound when spoken in French, the language of origin for the film and filmmakers. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the French language Academy Award submission for 2019 and it is worthy of the distinction.
Set in the mid-18th century, Portrait of a Lady on Fire stars Noemie Merlant as Marianne, a painter who has accepted a job for a family that once employed her father. Marianne will paint a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) only Heloise must not know that this is Marianne’s task. Heloise believes that Marianne has been hired to watch after her as she comes home to grieve the loss of her sister. Heloise’s mother, The Countess (Valeria Golino) fears her daughter’s despair may lead her to self harm.
She’s also concerned that Heloise’s impending marriage may also cause her to seek her sisters fate. Heloise’s sister may have killed herself to avoid her arranged marriage. Now, Heloise is to take her sister’s place as bride to be. This is where the portrait comes into play. The Countess needs to a portrait to close the deal for an arranged marriage to a rich scion in Milan. Heloise is angry over the arrangement but perhaps not for the same reason her sister was.
Portrait was written and directed by Celine Sciamma and the film competed for the Palme D’or at Cannes. The film would go on to win the Queer Palme, a fact that gives away a little about what this story is about. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about two women who begin to explore their desire for each other slowly and with uncertainty via glances and gestures. The heat of their romances comes mostly via stolen glances and tentative dialogue and yet is as exciting as any relentless sex scene.
That power comes from the chemistry of Merlant and Haenel. The looks they give one another could power a small electrical plant. For a time you wonder if you are bringing to the movie the idea that they are attracted to each other sexually, as if we were willing it to be by our desire. But no, the direction of Sciamma and the chemistry of her two leads is truly what drives us toward that desire. It’s fully directorial intent and we are along for the ride.
Sciamma does a wonderful job of layering her story with what drives these two characters together. At first, it does simply appear that Marianne is studying Heloise’s face for her painting. When Heloise looks at Marianne however, after coyly avoiding her for a time, the effect is palpable for both Marianne and for us in the audience. Marianne never verbalizes her thoughts about Heloise but as the looks linger and we study Heloise’s face as Marianne does, the message of desire becomes clearer.
Often in stories like this we begin to dream of happy endings that the movie fails to explain away. Portrait of a Lady on Fire does well to establish that both Marianne and Heloise understand their circumstances and the time in which they live. The limitations of their circumstances add a charge to their passion that deepens the drama and the excitement of their romance.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is effortlessly sexy without relying on the display of sexuality. We don’t have to see the sex to know the passion of these two women and in many ways our imagination of them is more powerful for what we don’t see. I mean that only to give example to the power of the connection of these two wonderful characters and the brilliant actresses who give them life. Sex may drive the imagination but it’s not what makes us fall in love with these characters.
I adore Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s romantic, it’s sexy and it’s wonderfully literary. The story of Eurydice and Orpheus plays an important role in the narrative as does a glorious piece of music that I am perhaps not musically literate enough to identify. The use of these signifiers is simple and yet still powerful. Especially striking is a visual reference to Eurydice that never failed to take my breath away.