Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Contains discussion of the ending of the movie, and references to the plot of Call Me By Your Name too

There is a considerable stretch in the middle of this movie that is just three women living companionably in a big grand creaky manor house on an island off the northern coast of France, and during the day they paint and embroider and go on walks along the coast, and at night they prepare dinner together and drink wine and play cards and read Greek myths aloud in front of the fire, and it is, quite possibly, THE dream. It is transporting. Every shot is almost soothing it is so beautiful, the rich colors of their dresses and hair against the light walls and furniture and the blue blue blue of the sea, all composed with a breathtaking, painterly grace by my new favorite cinematographer, the boldly elegant eye of Claire Mathon. Her images are how the film draws you in to its embrace, where you then hear, feel its heartbeat against your own: the rustle and weight of cloth, the smooth rasp of paint brushes on canvas, the wind blowing from the sea, the crackling of the fires—all with no score, because this haptic atmosphere is a soundtrack. And Céline Sciamma’s choice to forgo traditional musical accompaniment reserves an overwhelming beauty for the three moments, all diegetic, where music does occur, mounting in power until the crashingly emotional final shot, a long unbroken take of Adèle Haenel crying at a Vivaldi concert.

Of course, that two movies are both gay romances doesn’t mean they’ll have anything else in common in the story they’re telling or how they’re telling it, but beyond the overlay of their ending moments, Call Me By Your Name is actually not an inapt comparison at all to Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu). They are both designed in every detail to bring the audience body & soul into this beautiful world, but a world with an endpoint known to both us and the characters. The brevity of the time the lovers will have together informs the shape of the story, down to both movies containing a scene of the two lying in bed apologizing for the time they wasted in the beginning. But in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, what endings do to both art and romances becomes a central discussion of the film, and renders its final shot of Héloïse into something much more complex than the poignant but simple sorrow of Elio mourning the loss of his first love.

Because Héloïse and Marianne’s relationship, like her portrait, like this piece of music, is a completed piece of art, and she can love it in this form forever. Their love will never grow old and different, just as the Héloïse in the portrait, the Héloïse of Marianne’s memory, will remain as she is forever. They will never become resentful of each other, the terrible thing Héloïse discovered was possible once they’d been together. She asked her Orpheus to turn around, and Marianne did. They made the poet’s choice. And Héloïse listens to the movement that Marianne had once tried to play for her when she found out how much she loved music, and sobs at the sorrow of it all, but also in joy, at this beauty she can feel coursing through her, and she breaks into a gasping smile through her tears.

I’m still recovering from a cold and I think with this I’ve tapped out my ability to be cohesive, so I’m just going to list in post-script further things I loved about this movie:

– That the women each wear just one dress for the whole movie, because that’s how people did back then. And they help each other get abortions and buy party drugs from a woman at a bonfire night because that’s also how people did back then!
– Speaking of: Sophie gently holding the hand of the sweetly babbling baby by her head as the midwife works, god the tenderness and nuance of that moment
– And then: Héloïse announcing “We are going to paint” later that night and posing herself and Sophie so can Marianne depict the scene, give it the worthiness of oil paint
– Those scarves for the wind that you tie around your hairstyle? What were those! They looked so stunning!
– The mother commenting how strange it was to arrive in this house and find her—the her in her portrait—already here
– How high the waves always were in the frame
– Marianne shivering out of her soaked dress to sit naked in front of the fire, smoking a pipe, between the two white panels of her wet canvases drying against the hearth
– The Janelle Monáe/A Fantastic Woman/Armen Susan Ordjanian mirror-in-the-lap image, beautifully deployed here in a new artist/muse context
– Oh and when it comes to references, the queer film that I actually suspect could have been a conscious allusion here would be in the echo of two memorably specific erotic gestures from My Beautiful Laundrette—if you know, you know


One thought on “Portrait of a Lady on Fire

  1. Pingback: And Then We Danced | Watch Log

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