Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

At this point in time it is almost impossible to have an objective – and untainted – opinion on Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. It has taken social media by storm and endeared vast swathes of critics, especially those my age and younger. It isn’t uncommon to encounter takes praising this movie to high heavens and, despite its extremely recent arrival at the scene, counting it among the greatest works in the history of cinema. It goes without saying that Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is already a cult film and given how easily online communities coalesce around certain works of popular culture, I can only expect these sentiments to be exacerbated in the coming years.

This type of recency bias-propelled cult praise coupled with toxic tribalism prevalent in various social media outlets can also induce a peculiar type of force feedback response from a subsection of the film’s viewership. On a subconscious level, it may seem desirable to approach a highly-acclaimed movie with a rabid following like this one with at least a modicum of scepticism. After all, nothing in this world is perfect and if everyone around you keeps insisting this one is perfect, you might feel inclined to naturally assume a contrarian point of view. I won’t lie that I also may have been affected by this phenomenon and although I never consciously intended to do so, I approached Portrait Of A Lady On Fire – at least partially with my arms crossed and an expectation to be dazzled by cinematic perfection.

This was expectedly a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy because, as I mentioned already, nothing is perfect and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire isn’t an exception to this rule. However, it is still a very solid film that happens to have something interesting to say and it does so in a compelling manner. This story about two young women trapped in the gears of history and forced to abide by the rules of the world created by and for the benefit of men is worthy of discussion for at least two reasons.

First of all, it is fundamentally captivating thanks to its innate angst chiefly flowing from Sciamma’s direction, Adèle Haenel’s performance as Héloïse, and Noémi Merlant’s role as Marianne. This emotional dynamic projecting from the film captures the essence of the modern-day third-wave feminism vindicated by the recent upheaval connected to the Weinstein scandal and many other instances of institutional abuse directed towards women. As a result, the movie is saturated with commentary about the asymmetrical relationship between men and women and oozes exasperated frustration at the centuries-worth of injustice that has kept women from achieving their potential. However, Sciamma’s film doesn’t necessarily drown in its own anger – though it comes dangerously close to doing so – and refocuses its energy around what the filmmaker feels needed to change this calcified status quo: female camaraderie. Thus, her film is punctuated by moments where various women, sometimes from completely different background, become bound by a kind of subliminal understanding, such as during a bonfire when they sing in unison, when they accompany a maid as she is getting an abortion, or... when they paint.

In fact, this is where the second reason why this movie should be remembered comes into play. Sciamma uses the central conceit of Marianne being hired to paint a portrait coupled with her own perspective (she is romantically involved with Adèle Haenel in real life) to offer an alternative to what we have been historically conditioned to expect from movies. Her movie is a great, and still exceedingly rare, example of how women view other women; it is an exercise in female gaze and it is fascinating – especially to a man – to admire this process from the side-lines. Consequently, this virulently political treaty about historical injustice and condescending mistreatment is equally a romance about two people whose paths cross for a brief moment and this is the only time in their lives they will ever have together. In a way, this brings Portrait Of A Lady On Fire close to Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name as an experiment in re-harmonizing an archetypal coming-of-age story to become a heart-rending story about the tragic pursuit of love, acceptance and a visceral connection to another human being. In fact, the two films share a little bit of symmetry in the way they conclude and leave the viewer in a purgatory of emotional turmoil with the knowledge this love is never meant to have a happy ending.

Therefore, it is understandable that Sciamma’s film has reverberated so strongly with contemporary audiences. It seems almost tailor-made to resonate with the current zeitgeist of female empowerment and an artistically-confident approach to storytelling. However, this thematic density and an ambition to imbue the film with so many wrinkles and pieces of poignant and timely commentary while at the same time maintaining focus on the central love story eventually leads the film to come off the rails towards the end and lose its focus. For a moment there it would seem that Sciamma temporarily lost control over the multitude of angles she had successfully managed up to that point and lost herself in Haenel’s visage. While this is certainly understandable and aesthetically acceptable, it temporarily affected the film’s pacing. Fortunately, Antonio Vivaldi came to rescue the entire film in its very closing shot to leave the viewer slack-jawed and mesmerized by the emotional momentum of what Sciamma managed to encapsulate in one single close-up. This may be seen as a bit ironic that a man (Vivaldi) had to come and help to deliver the knockout blow, given the fact a chunk of this film’s thesis comments on the patriarchal relationship between men and women. But it works and it doesn’t denigrate Portrait Of A Lady On Fire one bit.

Block or Report

Jakub liked these reviews