Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Only in Vienna would I, an Austrian, get a recommendation from an Irish guy for a French movie that I watched with English subtitles.

Given that I am not the biggest fan of, well, anything French I’ve come into contact with throughout my life (shoutout to my high school French teacher, you’re a homophobic bully and a horrible person) I was skeptical, to say the least. The day before watching this one, I had walked out of a movie theater because a different French film was so brain-punchingly awful, I couldn’t stand another minute of it.

And then I pressed play on Portrait of a Lady on Fire. (Spoilers!)

The story begins in the late eighteenth century with Marianne, a young painter, on her way to a remote island in the Bretagne where she was hired to paint the portrait of a wealthy man’s fiancée as a wedding present. The task proved to be more of a challenge than expected, since the fiancée, elusive Héloïse, refused to sit for the portrait and Marianne was forced to rely on secretive glances and her memory in order to compose the painting. The closeness the women developed over the following two weeks was, they realized, more than friendly companionship. But the unfortunate circumstances and the women’s awareness about their respective societal duties and expectations caused the romance to be short-lived. The feelings, however, were not.

The first thing that this film impressed me with was its minimalistic use of sound. Save for two pieces of music, which were included with expert deliberateness, there was no score. Usually, a soundtrack is used to guide the viewer through a film’s emotional journey and silence can be effectively unsettling (at tense moments in thrillers, for example). In Portrait, the lack of music made me feel exposed and isolated, the presence of the filmmaker was removed, and I was left to my own devices in dealing with my raw emotional response to what I saw. No hand-holding and no forced sympathy for the characters and their decisions. It had a liberating quality.

But even more impressive was the confidence the film had in its quiet in terms of dialogue. Not all scenes needed to be filled with the externalization of our protagonists’ thoughts. Sometimes, they simply existed, walked, watched, ate, felt. To me, the not being privy to every reason behind every step, the not having every intention or reaction spelled out, made me engage with the characters on a much less conscious level.

Moreover, it seemed almost like a feminist statement. The characters were allowed to go about their lives without needing overt, verbal expression as justification for taking up space. Overall, the depiction of Marianne and Héloïse was incredibly unapologetic. Some gestures were unassuming, like the two women, together with their maid, preparing a meal without it being a statement on class or privileged women’s capabilities (or responsibilities) to fulfill chores. There was no comment about womanhood hiding between the movements of such practical, ‘menial,’ tasks.

Other gestures felt more meaningful in their quiet characterization of the female protagonists. Like the open, unswerving manner in which they would look others in the face. Their gaze almost defiant, daring. They demanded to be met at eye-level, no matter if they were curious, angry, disappointed, adoring, or confused. I hadn’t realized how much I was starved by Hollywood and, I guess, the mainstream for the simplicity and simultaneous power of women claiming their right to have and express feelings without, in a way, asking for permission. I mean, how often do you see a female character express a thought only to immediately smile or explain away its value?

On that note, how often is the trope of the “strong woman” depicted like a simulacrum defined by physical badassery (aka fighting skills) and a stern, no-nonsense attitude, and nothing else? Strength is presented as something on par with behavior that is expected from a strong male character. Because strength – the action-movie, alpha-male variety – follows a very shallow blueprint. And other genres adopt a version of that blueprint that mimics independence but shies away from integrity. Perhaps because it’s too difficult, not relatable or palatable enough. I’m glad Portrait didn’t have those qualms and didn’t treat its audience like imbeciles.

But I want to talk about the love story now. After all, it is the central focus of the film. I wouldn’t call it either heart-warming or heart-breaking. It wasn’t a melodramatic spectacle and it wasn’t designed to comment on the hardships of queer women in a rigid eighteenth-century society. Somehow the romance between Marianne and Héloïse seemed like a dream made reality, only possible in the liminal space of isolation and remorseless honesty. Neither woman seemed the type to blindly follow impulses, consequences be damned. And yet, they were unable to suppress their interest in each other. Though interest is too tame of a word, and love too big, too clear of one. Inch by inch, the two discovered not only who the other person was, with her little ticks and mannerisms, but also who they were themselves, as any good romance would.

To be honest, I was a bit put off by the ending at first. Marianne, by chance, saw Héloïse in the opera (or concert hall?) sitting on the balcony on the opposite wall. Héloïse, unaware, listened to a piece which had been deeply meaningful to (and indicative of) the women’s relationship. As the music continued, she got gradually more unraveled and began to weep, looking pained and overwhelmed with emotion. Initially, I looked at this reaction thinking about the years that had passed between their dalliance at this moment and I thought that since her feelings for Marianne – or the disappointment of having had to leave her – were far from fresh and she had built a new life and family elsewhere, surely she would look back on her past relationship with a dignified kind of fondness or, perhaps, bitter resentment at the world for robbing her of true love.

But the more I let the moment play out, I realized that the cause of her overpowering sadness was precisely the fact that she was no longer allowed the freedom to feel it. It was a mournful, though powerful, sort of devastation emphasized by the confines of her duty-bound married life. So once she heard a melody that reminded her of not only a deep happiness that she had lost, but also the chance at emotional honesty that had been taken from her, no other reaction would have made more sense. The final shot of Call Me By Your Name is very similar, but Portrait adds to it a defeated, adult quality that punched me in the heart all the more for it.

I’d recommend you watch this film alone because just like the characters appear to exist for nobody but themselves, your own enjoyment of the emotional journey through the story shouldn’t be influenced by anyone else’s presence.

I don’t quite know how to categorize this movie in terms of how it surprises, confuses, enthralls, and disillusions me. Thus far, French movies are the cheese to my macaroni, in that I absolutely, passionately dislike cheese of any flavor and texture. Except for mozzarella, which I can’t quite get enough of.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is mozzarella.



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