2019 | rated R | starring Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel | written & directed by Celine Sciamma | 2 hra 2 mins | In French with English Subtitles |
The fantastically titled Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t my type of movie, it wasn’t one I was particularly compelled or entertained by. At the same time I can certainly admire and celebrate several things that it does very well. It checks several empathy boxes that rogerebert.com would slobber up. It’s not as bad as that would suggest, or as good as it’s Cannes favorite and quick Criterion release would also suggest, but it’s a good movie, one that someone will probably love.
I do love how confidently the movie is what it is – take it or leave it. It’s a cold, static, claustrophobic period piece. A rare combination. Set somewhere in 18th century France, a painter named Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is asked to the island residence of Heloise (Adele Haenel) and her valet Sophie (Luana Bajrami) to paint a portrait of Heloise in the months before she is to be married off. Seemingly the only 3 people on the island, Heloise spends hours posing for and prodding for conversation with Marianne until the two form a deep romantic relationship and seek to keep their time together lasting as long as possible.
Fire is a stripped down, minimalist Merchant Ivory-esque forbidden lesbian romance (the FLR) in the tradition of forbidden lesbian romances that gave me serious deja vu. It has vibes of Disobedience and Carol and the heterosexual women-as-property Lady MacBeth. Fire is shot against bright whites, sand and ocean waves with very little music for dramatic emphasis – hence the coldness, but also the wonderful dramatic restraint. It’s a sure singular vision by director Celine Sciamma who seems to have made exactly the movie she wanted to. It is exceptionally well acted by Merlant and Haenel, who with only their understated performances, lingering looks and nods, slowly build a smoldering sexual tension between the two women.
Like any will-they-or-won’t-they romance, that flame goes out a bit as the two actually succumb to passion and spend their days wallowing in bed together while poor Sophie stands outside the door waiting. It’s technically well made, if rightfully challenging. I don’t have a bad thing to say about Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It also just didn’t connect with me. I felt at arm’s length from it, watching two great performances but also acutely aware I was watching two great performances. Since we’re stripping down cinema, I want to see a good story, well told. I want to be immersed in that story, those characters and that setting and I want to see how other cultures and people live. Fire is about this budding romance and only about the budding romance. The movie has one note that it hits the entire time without much extra character or complexity. The story goes exactly where you’d expect.
Compare this movie to the James Ivory-written, forbidden gay small-town Italy-set romance Call Me by Your Name. A rich, warm, beautiful movie with more complicated characters, immersed in a compelling setting and an equally anguished tale of lost love and longing. That’s a movie where the characters have more to talk about then their own repression.
There are a lot of great movies made in this stripped-down style. For many people Portrait of a Lady on Fire is going to be one of them. I get what Sciamma is doing here and it’s ambitious, the work of someone adept at the language and history of cinema. The movie is out-on-a-limb honest. Her standoffish approach fits the film’s repression theme perfectly. This is the work of a talented filmmaker. Merlant and Haenel are certainly considerable talent and worth the price of admission. I admire it. I can’t say that an approach that was warmer and more immersive would have made a better movie. It just might have worked better for me.