Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★

Part of my first TIFF dispatch for The Georgia Straight:

Céline Sciamma is not exactly a new voice (her debut feature, Water Lilies, premiered at Cannes over a decade ago, and her critical renown has been on a steady upward trajectory ever since) but she is, for me, an unknown quantity. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the other hand, is something quite familiar: a stately costume drama in the cinema du papa tradition, one of those ornate, plushly appointed period pieces that the French turned into an industrial product roughly a century ago, churning them out year over year like factory-made reproductions of Louis XIV commodes.

Unfortunately, Sciamma’s newest film is more an output of the assembly line than it is the work of a major auteur entering mid-career maturity. The scopophilic potential of the premise does, for a time, promise a more iconoclastic approach to the shop model: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel), but must do so in secret; sidelong advances and furtive glances are the only tools available to the clandestine artist who must scope out her subject from afar. But as an observer herself, Sciamma is rather abashed. She blushes with embarrassment whenever her scenario arouses the pervy pleasures of voyeurism, and her go-to maneuver is to flirt with lusty scopophilia before executing a hasty retreat into chastity and tastefulness. The love affair that inevitably blossoms between artist and model should throb with danger, should pulsate with uneasy suggestions of exploitation and predation, as if the possessiveness of the canvas is synonymous with the desires of the greedy lover. In the very least, it ought to call up the fear of social opprobrium: the world around these women would surely snuff out the flames of lesbian passion at the first sign of smoke. But Sciamma keeps that world offscreen throughout because she is committed to an idea of gay romance that is generous, kind, and thoroughly contemporary. Given the setting, you might even call it utopian, which surely helps explain Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s widespread appeal: it offers the fine gilt pleasures of the period movie while simultaneously providing all the moral conveniences of modern life. Sciamma’s finicky attention to candlelight and 18th century domestic fripperies can’t hide the fact that Portrait of a Lady on Fire actually takes place in the present. And like any ready-made facsimile, the historical varnish is merely a concession to bourgeois tastes, a decorative contrivance, and therefore entirely dishonest.

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