Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Don’t despair! Even though we are confined and unable to go to the movies you can subscribe to Curzon Home Cinema and see all the new releases at a fraction of the price you would pay at the Everyman. In addition there are 12 classic films which are free, and others in their library which are less expensive than the new releases. 

So in the next few weeks I shall be reviewing the films that tickle my fancy showing at the Curzon. The first is this stunner, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We saw the trailer when we caught Parasite, appropriately in Hollywood’s premier cinema, on our recent travels and made a note of it being one to see.

A female portrait painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives in Brittany, hired to paint the portrait of convent-educated recluse Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). She is commissioned by her mother, the elegant Comtesse (Valeria Golino) so that she can send the picture to an Italian nobleman and secure their futures through a good marriage. The Comtesse has already lost her first daughter, the nobleman’s intended, in a fall – or did she jump? – on the cliffs. 

A first attempt to paint Héloïse’s portrait was a faceless failure; the male artist was sacked and a female painter hired to try and win her daughter’s confidence. This involves a deception – Marianne has been brought in as a companion; her painting has to be done at night and from the furtive sketches she commits to memory as they walk together on the windswept cliffs and beaches.

Director Céline Sciamma describes her film as a ‘manifesto about the female gaze’ and, indeed, the film uses the power of looking and seeing as a central theme. The visceral attraction between the two women, one cloistered and lonely and the other worldly and all-seeing, means that secrets can no longer be kept: the portrait can be revealed.

But Héloïse is appalled by what she sees as Marianne’s inability to see her as a person: ‘The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand…But I find it sad it isn’t close to you.’

‘I didn’t know you were an art critic’ replies the distraught Marianne; to which the barbed reply is ‘I didn’t know you were a painter’. It’s the old question, when does the hunter become the hunted, the observer become the observed?

This image is continued through a long discussion about Orpheus and Eurydice which includes the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). The issue is whether Orpheus looked back of his own free will or whether Eurydice ordered him to do so, thus confining herself to the underworld. Marianne disagrees in the most telling line of the film, ‘He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s…He chooses the memory of her’. Back to the power of the gaze.

Sciamma’s eyes are focussed on the female narrative; there is barely a man in the film and although this is a love story, it is also about female inclusivity with Sophie’s story being as central. Her abortion in a grubby cottage on the single bed, where the abortionist’s chubby child grabs her finger at the critical moment is revealed with an unflinching photographic eye. Sophie’s position seems to be almost equal to the two lovers, as they cook together, while Sophie does needlepoint. It is a statement about the ability of women to stick together in adversity. 

As for the love scenes themselves, they are beautifully nuanced and suggestive, in contrast to Blue is the Warmest Colour, the last lesbian movie I saw, but made by a man; the actors complained about the one-shot sex scenes being demeaning. Even the most squeamish man will not feel the need to look away – the bond between the two women is a thing of beauty and restraint, matching the peerless cinematography. Each scene is reminiscent of a renaissance painting, with the bold colours of the gowns, the set pieces and the wild backdrops.This is a film for sitting back and watching with pleasure; the pace is slow, the scenes sumptuous and the riddling about the film’s true meaning intriguing.

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