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Portrait of a Lady on Fire
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by Peter Sobczynski

5 stars

Now that this year’s Oscar derby has come to its blessed conclusion, I suppose that it turned out pretty well for the most part. Sure, the notion of “Jojo Rabbit” getting the Adapted Screenplay award over Greta Gerwig’s brilliant take on “Little Women” was deeply embarrassing and I suspect that the collective delusion that Joaquin Phoenix actually won his Best Actor prize for “Walk the Line” or “The Master” instead of his hammy turn in “Joker” has already begun. For the most part, however, things went pretty well and the unexpected triumph of “Parasite” over the late-surging mediocrity of “1917” was a legitimate thrill, especially coming from the same body that awarded Best Picture to the likes of “Green Book” only one year before. However, there is one embarrassment that may indeed raise eyebrows in the future and it is the fact that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the rapturous romance from French filmmaker Celine Sciamma, failed to receive even a single nomination, let alone an award. From a purely analytical standpoint, this shutout is somewhat understandable—France, in a deeply questionable move, elected to put forth the immensely forgettable “Les Miserables” for the International Film Oscar instead of it and its American distributor, essentially decided to put all of its eggs into backing its other horse of the season, which just happened to be “Parasite.” If there is a consolation to all this, it is that long after all the Oscar derby details have faded from memory, viewers will still avidly be watching it and swooning over its emotional impact.

Set towards the end of the eighteenth century, the film begins as Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young artist, arrives at a remote estate on a rocky island off of Brittany. She has been hired to spend a week creating a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), a work that, if successfully completed, will help solidify her planned wedding to a rich man from Milan. After Marianne arrives, however, Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) informs her that the job is a little more complicated than she was led to believe. For starters, Heloise refuses to actually sit and pose for the portrait because she has no interest in getting married. Then there is the fact that Heloise, who hasn’t arrived at the house yet, is coming from a convent where she has been grieving the recent death of her sister. Marianne’s job over the course of the week is to serve as Heloise’s companion, protect her from any self-destructive impulses that her mother fears she may have and study her image well enough in order to reproduce it on the canvas without actually having her there.

Against all odds, Marianne manages to accomplish all of this but has developed enough of a genuine bond with Heloise that she cannot continue with the ruse. Not only does she admit everything, she even destroys the painting when she shows it to her and Helosie critiques it. In an equally startling move, Heloise agrees to pose for a portrait after all over the next few days while her mother is off to Italy. During that time, Heloise poses, Marianne paints and the two grow closer, especially when they join forces to help the young maid, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), to get an abortion. Eventually, the two can no longer deny the feelings that have developed between them and romance blooms. Unfortunately, these next few days of bliss are tempered by the fact that their love is inevitably short-lived—Marianne is constantly haunted by visions throughout the house of Heloise in her wedding dress—and it all leads up to an appropriately devastating conclusion.

Now I will admit that as I have recounted it, the basic storyline of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” may not seem like much—it almost reads like a compilation of elements taking from any number of Oscar-baiting period romantic dramas. However, this is an instant where the particulars of the narrative are not quite as important in the overall scheme of things as the way in which said narrative has been related and in this case, that has been accomplished with astonishing grace, beauty and power. Over the course of her three previous features—“Water Lillies” (2007), “Tomboy” (2011) and “Girlhood” (2014)—Sciamma has made a name for herself by creating fascinating and strikingly minimalist studies of female adolescence with a keen eye for depicting issues regarding gender and sexual identity. Those films were all excellent and worth seeking out (they can all currently be found on the Criterion Channel) but with this film, Sciamma earns a place as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. On the surface, it may appear to simply be a recounting of a powerful but brief romance (as the film employs a flashback structure so that the entire story takes on the form of a powerful memory rather than something unfolding before our eyes for the very first time) and taken simply along those lines, it has been beautifully done—although it is an original screenplay, it has the scope and depth of a finely constructed novel throughout that has somehow survived the adaptation process without losing any of what made it so special on the page.

At the same time, the film also slowly reveals itself to be an insightful analysis of the artistic process—in this particular case, asking the question of how does an artist create a work that simultaneously commemorates a particular image for future generations to experience while at the same time presenting it in a way that manages to keep all the feelings and emotions that went into its creation alive and well. This reveals itself not just in the creation of the portrait and the various other drawings that turn up throughout the story but in the way that Marianne and Heloise look at and regard each other, even before making their feelings known. Some of the most arresting images in the film come simply from how each one looks upon the other in ways that obliterate all of the class and social differences between them. In visual arts criticism, one often reads about the “male gaze”—the way in which women are presented from an exclusively masculine perspective as objects of erotic desire. Here, Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon offer up a wholly feminine take on that notion that infuses the entire film with an undeniable sensuality without resorting to the usual imagery utilized to convey eroticism in a feature film. There is, for example, a close-up shot at one point of a particular body part—no fair revealing which—that I cannot imagine a male filmmaker presenting in the way that it has been here and if there was a more erotic image presented in a movie in the past year, I clearly must have missed it.

Sciamma’s direction and screenplay are both powerful and original throughout (at first, the flashback structure seems a bit unnecessary but it winds up paying off beautifully at the end) but this is one of those films in which everything comes together in ways that are both dazzling and deeply felt. The cinematography by Mathon is absolutely stunning throughout—appropriately enough for a film about the artistic process, this is a film in which virtually every single shot contains an image worthy of hanging in a museum (the nighttime sequence at a beach bonfire that inspires the film’s title is especially mesmerizing) but never to the point where they threaten to overwhelm the proceedings. Although music is another key element to the story—Heloise is a lover of music despite having never actually hearing an orchestra before—the use of it on the soundtrack itself is relegated to only a couple of moments but when those moments do crop up, the impact is stunning. Most significantly, the film has been blessed with two of the very best performances of the past year in the work done by Haenel and Merlant. The former has been a rising star over the last few years—besides working with Sciamma, her past credits include collaborations with the likes of Bertrand Bonello, Andre Techine, Guy Maddin, Quentin Dupieux and the Dardenne Brothers—while Merlant has been moving up the ranks as well but this should serve as the final breakthrough for anyone wanting to get a glimpse of their undeniable talents. In essence, the entire film is resting on their shoulders—if we don’t believe in them or the relationship that they are trying to convey, the whole thing is lost—but there is never a moment in which they are anything less than fully convincing in their roles. Moreover, the bond that they establish between their characters over the course of their evolving relationship is so powerful and palpable that when the circumstances change towards the end, even the most guarded cynics in the audience will find themselves moved beyond expectations.

Beautifully filmed, impeccably acted and containing a story that is both deeper and more intriguing than it might seem at first glance, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an absolute knockout in every way and while an accident of timing may have led to it getting unfortunately pushed to the side (even when people protested the lack of female filmmakers among this year’s crop of Oscar nominees, virtually all of the attention focused solely on the lack of a Best Director nomination for Greta Gerwig), this is a film that, like the painting at its center, is going to enrapture and galvanize those who look upon it for a long time to come. How good is it? In promoting the film, Neon is describing it in the ads as the “Cinema’s greatest love story.” In most cases, applying such a description to a contemporary film might seen like an astonishing act of hubris that is practically begging to backfire. That appellation may not be true in this particular case either but I promise you that anyone coming out of a screening of the film will be hard-pressed to think of a better one at that particular moment.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32924&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/19/20 22:26:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/05/20 Louise (the real one) Beautifully filmed, creating an understated mood which slowly develops into pure emotion. 4 stars
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