Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

by Charles Nash

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday February 14, 2020

'Portrait Of A Lady On Fire'
'Portrait Of A Lady On Fire'   

As a queer film critic, Cline Sciamma's films resonate with me in ways that make my heart feel as if it's about to burst. Her debut feature, "Water Lilies," which tells the story of a teenager's sexual awakening after she falls head over heels for the "bad girl" on her high school's swim team, beautifully encapsulated every conflicting emotion that I experienced with my own first, unrequited crush at that age. In our heteronormative world, realizing that I was gay was, initially, a terrifying epiphany, and coming to terms with the fact that I had deep-seated feelings for my best friend at the time (who was incapable of reciprocating them) made this realization all the more wrenching. Yet, it was also exhilarating; intoxicating, as a matter of fact, to know that, for the first time in my life, I was in love.

Sciamma's subsequent features, "Tomboy" and "Girlhood," continued to delve into themes on gender identity and queerness through adolescent protagonists, but her latest work, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," is the first time she's explored blossoming sexuality within adults.. As such, it serves as a departure from her loosely entwined coming-of-age trilogy, while also being her best work to date: An exquisitely crafted lesbian romance that provides a self-reflexive commentary on the importance of the female gaze.

Set in the 18th century, we see the world through the eyes of Marianne, a painter who has been sent to a secluded residence on an island in Brittany. She has been hired by a countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Hlose, which will be delivered to her Milanese suitor as a proposal for their arranged marriage. As a form of protest against being turned into her mother's matrimonial pawn, Hlose refuses to pose for anyone, so Marianne must pretend that she's arrived merely as a companion for afternoon strolls, and finish the painting in complete secrecy. The two women grow closer over time, however, and as their friendship begins to cross over into pure infatuation, they eventually break free from their repressive norms and give in to their hearts' unshakable desires.

In a tricky balancing act, Sciamma manages to subvert nearly every heteronormative trope of the period-piece genre while always acknowledging the oppressive society these women inhabit. Even in a film that's largely devoid of men, the specter of patriarchy looms heavily within every scene, always threatening to strip away the characters' remaining sense of agency. We learn through the resident maid, Sophie (Luna Bajrami), that the reason Hlose is stuck within her mother's one-sided marital proposition is that her late older sister was initially in her spot until she died under "ambiguous" circumstances. It makes sense, then, that Marianne initially struggles to get Hlose to smile since "anger is always at the forefront with you." Why wouldn't it be, given those circumstances?

Each stunning composition from cinematographer Claire Mathon feels like a distant memory that Marianne yearns to document onto her own canvases. Hlose is initially framed as an emblem of desire; many shots are comprised of close-ups on her face, eyes, ears, hands, and hair, but as Marianne begins to fall for her, she starts to take the form of a subject, as opposed to an object. Yet, Sciamma and Mathon's approach is anything but voyeuristic; while there's always an undercurrent of erotic tension, its the intimacy that's front and center, with even the tiniest of gestures feeling like sparks flickering from a burning ember.

One of the most striking aesthetic decisions that immerses the viewer within the isolation of the heroines is a complete lack of score. The silence is deafening, which only emphasizes the film's sound design that's rife with background noise: The crackling of firewood, the crashing of waves, the whistling of wind, the snap of a corset being tied... It's a suffocatingly effective form of minimalism, interrupted only by a quintessential sequence in which the two heroines venture out to a bonfire, accompanied by the diegetic vocals of an all-female a capella group who provide them, and us, with a moment of pure transcendence.

More than anything, though, I'll never forget the film's final shot, which is as devastating as anything I've seen in recent memory. The term "masterpiece" gets thrown around hyperbolically these days, but "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is, quite honestly, the most perfectly calibrated and emotionally cathartic film I saw last year. Now, with it finally receiving a wider release, it's bound to set everyone else's hearts ablaze.