‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Is Like Watching Paint Dry, But in a Slow Burn, Sexy Way
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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is like watching paint dry. Yes, that’s a pejorative, but it’s also central to Céline Sciamma’s stately romantic drama set in the late 18th century on the remote island of Brittany.
Lauded by the voting block of the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (Best LGBTQ Film of the Year and Visually Striking Film of the Year — it tied with 1917) and roundly ignored by members of the Academy, Sciamma’s film is visually striking, though the long shots of coastal cliffs and isolated individuals against the tundra is nothing compared to the emotional landscapes playing in close-up between the lead actresses.
And you have a lot of time to admire it while waiting for a line of dialogue or a conflict to arise.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on the isle of Brittany atop rocky waters. After climbing to the clifftop manse she’s greeted by the housemaid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), but not the mistress, La Comtess (Valeria Golino), who has hired Marianne to paint a wedding portrait of her betrothed daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).
Much of the first half of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is watching Marianne settle in. She’s observational by nature, and the film mimics her behaviors: measured, empathic, passionate, resolved. Sciamma’s acute understanding of her characters’ emotions guides this claustrophobic drama steadily and artfully, even when it appears nothing is going on (gorgeous as the film looks, I found the first third ponderously slow).
Little by little, we discover more of the mysterious objet d’art, Héloïse. Her sister died tragically just a month prior. She has been brought back home by La Comtess to take the sister’s place as the bride to be of an Italian count. And she refuses to sit to be painted. Marianne’s purpose is to be a companion and observe her during the day, returning to her quarters at night to sketch and paint from memory.
And then, of course, desire. The two women embark on a passionate affair when La Comtess is summoned to Italy, each of them knowing their happiness will be over when La Comtess returns and Marianne has to deliver to her the portrait.
Sciamma is a gifted filmmaker who has the uncanny ability to make the landscapes representative of the roil of slow-burning passion on display without tipping into cliché — there’s a visit to an 18th century midwife abortionist that’s unexpected, primal, and surprisingly emotional — and she’s so attuned to her stars that every scene feels like we’re stumbling into a private, fraught moment that is really not for us to see.
While the romance at the center of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is finely detailed and delicately acted, it’s what Sciamma doesn’t have to say about the agency of women in the late 18th century, and those who will make their way or those who will do as expected and find a different way, that’s most impressive. Oh, and that the title character is both Héloïse and Marianne.