Manila, 17 November—Céline Sciamma’s French historical drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is perhaps the best movie I’ve seen this year.
(Spoilers after the trailer)
The film, which won Best Screenplay at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter tasked to do a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is set to be married off to her dead sister’s ex-fiancé. Because Héloïse has refused to pose for a portrait (because she does not want to get married), Marianne is hired to be Héloïse’s ‘walking companion’ and has been tasked by Héloïse’s mother the Countess to paint her in secret.
This is the core of the movie’s main tension, which unravels beautifully against the backdrop of sea blues and beach browns of a secluded shore, and right inside the bright blue walls of Marianne's art studio.
Most rave reviews describe the film as “rich”, and it is—every frame looks like a painting. Marianne’s bright red dress contrasts beautifully in relation to Héloïse’s deep blue or sparkling green.
And oh, all that looking. Merlant has the Artist’s Deep Probing Gaze down pat, and Haenel’s lip acting is everything—she treads the thin line between serious and flirty masterfully. It was such a joy to watch, particularly that scene where they try to prove to each other just how well they know each other just by noticing tiny details about each other’s mannerisms.
Also loved the tight metaphors—the fires and the candles, the music, the integration of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was like every detail had been painstakingly put there.
Briefly, I thought the whole apparition in a wedding dress was a bit heavy-handed, but oh boy did it take my breath away when they closed that metaphor with the final shot: Marianne running down the stairs and opening the main door, and Héloïse running after her and asking her to turn around one last time—just like Orpheus—and Marianne thereafter closing the door forever to the image of Héloïse in a wedding dress, the vision vanishing, finally.
I think it was Mary Oliver who said that attention without feeling is merely a report—and clearly, the attention Marianne showered Héloïse is full of feeling. I have always believed that attention is the right beginning of love—the moment you pay attention, that’s it. All that looking in the movie destroyed me, to be honest. They do it so damn well, and the camera work lets you see through Marianne’s eyes so achingly accurate—it’s hard not to fall a bit in love yourself with Héloïse and her possibilities.
Unlike Blue is the Warmest Color—a comparison that is difficult not to make, given they’re both French movies with women loving women at the center—Portrait does not have the same leeriness of Blue at some point. Portrait also does not have explicit sex scenes—or at least, as far as the edit that we watched in Glorietta went. It cut straight to the morning after, the soft white sheets and the afterglow. It saved the tenderness for the imagination—which works for me, since I could fill in the blanks anyhow. (Perhaps explicit lesbian scenes are for men, who could not.)
And for a movie that had an artist lead POV, we did not have hagod scenes—scenes where the camera deliberately lingers or crawls across the other woman’s body. Unlike Blue, which had several scenes which really felt like there was someone else in the room with the lead girls. Portrait has none of that, at least in my view. It preserved the intimacy of the scenes, and I liked it.
Speaking of intimate scenes I liked: The one that stood out for me was the whole Last Night In Bed scene, where they discuss regret and remembrance, fully clothed and fighting sleep. After a five-day trip, Héloïse’s mother is coming back that following morning, which would put an end to their lovers’ tryst. I loved how vulnerable they became, how much of themselves they revealed. I remember the first time I wanted to kiss you. GAH.
Speaking of GAH moments, I have two words I will not expound: Page 28.