Something new is happening! This film wasn’t assigned for Movie Club, and yet here I am, still writing a review. I like this very subjective spoilery way of reviewing films, although I have no idea which reviewing conventions I break or not. Who cares! Beware, as this review contains, as always, spoilers.
I watched this film with a friend for the first time, and I realized afterwards that I had watched all the other here reviewed films alone. And it does make a difference. I have deeper feelings or a deeper connection to the film when I watch it alone. There is more of a community feeling when I watch it with friends. That being said I guess that the film would have made me more sad if I had watched it alone.
We watched the movie dubbed which I think took something away from it. The dubbing seemed sometimes out of place or inappropriate, and I assume that there is a different feel to the characters in French. In hindsight, we should have probably watched it subbed, but well.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about Marianne, a painter who is hired to paint Héloïse for her future husband. A task not so easily accomplished because as Héloïse’s mother puts it, Héloïse doesn’t want this wedding (she used to be in a monastery) and refused to sit for the previous painter, making it impossible for him to paint her.
More than anything, this is a love story and a story about women. When the film was over, I realized that there are only a handful of scenes with men in them, and the men are completely irrelevant to the plot. Oh, the delight!
Where do I even start?
I am not sure where the film is set, I thought maybe Corsica? as Marianne is rowed to an island in the beginning of the film. Doesn’t matter where it is set, the visuals are amazing. If you for some reason don’t care about or don’t like the plot of the film, you would definitely still love the visuals. The scenery is gorgeous, both inside and outside of the house. The camera catches both the scenery and the relationships between the women perfectly.
I was confused at first when Marianne finished the first painting because this couldn’t have been the end?! Thankfully, it wasn’t. I enjoyed watching Marianne draw. It was quite beautiful and intimate to see her paint Héloïse (and herself, and Héloïse and Sophie). To be honest, everything about this film felt incredibly intimate. The looks between Marianne and Héloïse, all that gazing! The tension between them! There is no other way to put it but intimate. And sensual. It was a very sensual film, focused on the art and painting, and on the blooming love.
I feel so romantic writing all this, but it was a romantic film as well. There were so many things I liked. I think the first half of the film feels tense, and once Héloïse’s mother leaves, everything loosens. Not only between the three women in the film. You can so feel it as a viewer. The second half is so much different from the first.
I like how Sophie sits in the kitchen, doing handiwork while Héloïse and Marianne cook, how they subtly exchanged roles because they must see each other as equals. I liked how Sophie apparently knows all the locals, and takes Héloïse and Marianne with her. I liked the women singing by the fire (such beautiful voices!). I liked how Marianne and Héloïse supported Sophie during her abortion. And how the baby comforted Sophie. (That hurt a lot, in a sweet way.) I liked how they caught Sophie’s fate on paint because who else would ever paint the pain of women? There were so many little scenes that told something about solidarity and friendship between women which was incredibly comforting and beautiful.
There was also a lot of foreshadowing and pay-off. The whole part about Orpheus and Euridike, the Four Seasons, and page 28 were such beautiful (and painful) pay-offs for Marianne’s and Héloïse’s love. It was so well-made.
And as a women in a patriarchal society, it was hard to watch the lives of these women unfold, and to see and feel how little choice they had about living their lives. How Héloïse was happier in the monastery than in a marriage she didn’t want. How Marianne was supposedly more free, but still so constrained as a single women, overshadowed by her father’s name. How Sophie was constrained not only by womanhood, but also by class barriers that dissolved for some fleeting days with the other two women. And nevertheless, they owned their choices.
I think Héloïse also said something very true about the nature of romantic relationships when she confronted Marianne about wanting her for herself. How you stop being on the side of the other person when you feel like you possess them a little bit and they owe you something. They owe you happiness or fulfillment somehow, and you forget to empathise and support them with their problems.
So many aspects to love! So many possibilities to discuss! This is probably the most unhelpful review in any way, only to be understood by people who have seen this film already, but I don’t care. I’m putting it here anyway. It was a beautiful film, both visually and story-wise. Thank you, queer part of the internet, for shoving it into my face for the past couple of months so I felt obligated to finally watch it.
I give it 4/5 stars.