Search This Blog

March 5, 2020


Image result for portrait of a lady on fire images

Set in the 18th century on the remote shores of Brittany, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a phenomenon of a film. The premise is feminist and straightforward. A woman – Marianne (Noémie Merlant) – is hired to secretly paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who does not want her portrait painted because she is the default fiancée of a Milanese nobleman, her sister having thrown herself off a cliff into the ocean to avoid that fate.

The portrait subject’s mother (Valeria Golino) was herself sent to an arranged marriage, a portrait preceding her. She loves her daughter, and perceives this traditional practice as necessary and legitimate.

What appears to be a story of two women in love morphs into the story of three: a working-class artist is hired to surreptitiously paint an elite virgin who is served by a devoted, though at the onset almost unknown, young servant. Sophie ((Luàna Bajrami) hardly knows her mistress because the affianced has been cloistered in a nunnery, which she recalls fondly for its library, its music, and its sense of equality.

While the film gently explores the theme of women loving women, the lovers transcend those ideas and the barriers of class when they facilitate an abortion for the housemaid in the betrothed woman’s employ. This, not the lesbian relationship, was for me, the center of the film. Two women of varying degrees of substance fall in love, but they join forces, not only in their female gaze as lovers, but to bear witness to the plight of women everywhere at any time. Nonetheless, each accepts her own fate going forward into the world as it is, with its barriers for both.

Every scene is exquisitely painterly, especially those lit by fire, and at the moments when music enters in, ethereal. The storm section of the Summer movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons somewhat brackets the film, but its musical tour de force is the women's autumnal gathering with the unison harmonizing of "La Jeune Fille en Feu," a mesmerizing sequence written for the film by Para One. According to Slate's Matthew Dessem, "Their...inspiration was not anything period appropriate but Gyorgy Ligeti's Requiem, famously used in '2001: A Space Odyssey.' "

Taken as whole, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a quiet homily on the fundamentals of love and loss, and the conventions that constrict the former and conduct the latter.