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Girl on ‘fire:’ female power reigns supreme in Celine Sciamma’s latest film

| Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Theresa T

Does life imitate art, or is it the other way around? This question is at the heart of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a masterful new film from French auteur Céline Sciamma that was released last year on the international festival circuit and is now appearing exclusively on Hulu. Distributor NEON has taken to calling the film “Cinema’s greatest love story;” while that’s not exactly true, it’s not that far off, either. Erotic without slipping into objectification, sensual but never exploitative, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a gorgeous depiction of forbidden passion, its languid pacing belying a torrential emotional bedrock.

Following the romance between the painter Marianne and her reluctant subject Heloise (Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel, both conveying a wounded confidence), “Portrait” evolves into a dual dissection of the power of art and the fleeting nature of true love. The film draws from sources as disparate as the classical tale of Orpheus and the paintings of Judith Leyster and Evelyn de Morgan; in doing so, it presents its story’s central romance as something universal, evoking emotions that exist outside of the plot’s specific temporal and physical range.

Upon my first viewing of “Portrait” last year, I was inspired by its overt feminism and contemporary cinematic flourishes to dub it a 2019 update of a timeless tale; to do so, though, is to miss Sciamma’s point. It is not that these eighteenth-century characters have been retrofitted with our values and norms, it’s that the film slowly reveals how their behaviors don’t differ at all from our own. The main duo, along with the maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami, who manages to steal her relatively few scenes), act like a pair of freshman PLS majors at the film’s outset: they debate art and philosophy, dance in Heloise’s palatial island home and share weed. Only after Marianne and Heloise begin to reckon with their burgeoning feelings for each other does “Portrait” fall into a steady lockstep of furtive glances and stolen kisses, which eventually give way to an unsustainable eruption of passion.

Those moments of passion find the movie at its most quietly revolutionary; Sciamma never draws undue attention to her heroines’ sexual orientation or portrays it as the be-all, end-all of their characterization. The writer-director merely allows her leads to set the example for the film’s sex scenes, if they can even be called that: alluring without even trying, the sequences foreground sight and gaze as acts of superlative sexual expression. “Portrait” is an all-too-rare celebration of the female gaze; one scene, involving a strategically-placed mirror and a “Titanic”-aping private portrait, is refreshing in its stark repudiation of the cinematic standards of female sexuality. The audience doesn’t need to see the explicit details of Marianne and Heloise’s romance. Sciamma trusts the audience to fill in the blanks themselves, wisely deigning to only show us the lovers lounging in bed afterwards. These scenes cement “Portrait” as one of the 21st-century’s greatest sexual-tragic films, on the same level as Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike,” Cuaron’s “Y tu Mama tambien” and Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” It’s also the rare film about sex that doesn’t give one character power over the other. Whether it’s the artist or the subject, the two women exist in conversation both physical and emotional with each other; they don’t need a paintbrush to leave a mark. 

The power of sight ties into the film’s use of portrait art; Marianne’s profession is reflected in the work of cinematographer Claire Mathon, production designer Thomas Grezaud and costume designer Dorothee Guiraud, whose compositions could be framed in a museum themselves. Shots align the characters in terms of their social status; at the film’s outset, the upper-class Heloise often assumes a removed position at the top of the frame, foreshadowing the eventual ascendance of her portrait. Most films aim to transform their audience from passive viewers into active participants, but Sciamma and her crew instead perform a similar act with the art of the movie itself. “Portrait” asks us to confront our own preconceptions of onscreen romance and female passion; when we look, it is almost as if the screen looks back. 

After a middle portion that threatens to drag, “Portrait” nails the landing with a final half-hour that features back-to-back-to-back sequences that tie together every loose thread Sciamma has introduced. All three endings could serve as climaxes on their own; when viewed in conjunction with each other, the effect is shattering, an emotional experience on par with the final stretches of “Brokeback Mountain” and the opening of “Up.” Sciamma’s script cuts like a butterfly knife. You don’t even know your heart is broken until the credits roll and the previous two hours of story wash over you. 

Even as its plot takes its characters far away from their original location and intentions, “Portrait” never strays far from the flames at the heart of its story. Fire makes its presence known in every scene of the film, whether visually or aurally. Flame is not solely an instrument of destruction; it is also a symbol of affirmation. It can burn down a house as easily as it can heat the same. It’s a force of unstoppable change — much like the romance of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

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