Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It's tough to watch a film after so much hype has been mounted and spread for it. If you wait long enough, that can die down in your thought and it will be as if you just heard some positives for the film and your viewing of it can be as neutral as possible. But when you see it while it's still in theaters and there has been endless talk about its status as a masterpiece, there is too much mental work to be done to separate the public praise from your viewing of it and you become a prisoner of your own opinion. Going into Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I was unsure of whether I would have the courage to unsettle my Top 10 Films of 2019 should I fall in love with this film as unabashedly as Marianne and Héloïse do with each other. But like a double-edged sword, there are benefits to my not having fallen in love with the film.

Before I go any further, I must be clear that I did enjoy this film. I had bated breath in moments of tension, I laughed at the reveal of an exposed number in a portrait, and I yearned for the freedom of which Marianne spoke. I'm just not head-over-heels. Having studied up and watched all of Céline Sciamma's features before seeing Portrait, I was not surprised by the subdued nature of it, but I think I was expecting more unbridled passion than I got. That's on me, for interpreting all the enthusiasm of the film as a response to something heightened.

But because of how I feel about the film, I know it's a genuine reaction. I like it enough to know I'm not railing against popular consensus and I'm not crazy enough about it to know I'm not psyching myself into joining that consensus. I just enjoyed this piece of art. Sciamma may not have made another coming-of-age story in the classical sense like she has been doing up to this point, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about a coming of age that was delayed because of societal restrictions. If there's one thing I understand about Sciamma after four films, it's that she knows how to get her actors to communicate nonverbally. Her scripts have plenty of dialogue, but there are undercurrents in almost every exchange, but the real meat is in the nonverbal.

I swear there is one moment when Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is painting Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and she gives her two glances. The first is to look at her model and the second is to look at her love. They're incredibly brief and back-to-back, but Merlant relaxes her big doe eyes the second time around and we see the love she feels. There are countless glances like that, some accompanying words and some not. It's taking full advantage of the visual half of the medium, something that Sciamma has never had a problem doing.

Honestly, she doesn't have any problems as a filmmaker. The only reason you would not like any of her films is because you don't like her style, but she does it really well. In her films, the emotion builds steadily and logically and characters often refuse an opportunity to deescalate that because it would mean not getting what they want. Héloïse could have let her mother fire Marianne and save herself the heartbreak she knew would have to come but she didn't.

This is what makes the Eurydice myth that becomes such a poetic motif in the film so powerful. Sciamma gets that we often make the choice that brings us the most pain because it simultaneously brings us the most feeling. Turning around to look at the death of love in its face is agonizing but it's also the only way to get closure for sure. And in a relationship where closure is inevitable, why not get it over with in dramatic fashion?

I'm still holding out hope that The Criterion Channel will eventually host this film and I can give it a rewatch with even more unbiased eyes. Because of how I felt walking out of this theater, I don't feel a need to squish this into my rank of 2019 films. Not only would that be breaking my arbitrary rules, but it feels unfair and I know that something this dense and feeling deserves more time. But I must say that LTRBXD's design change for the stars to flames for this particular title makes me tempted to give it all five. It certainly deserves them.