Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) – Every Frame Is a Painting


For the most part, and even since Cannes, this is my very, very most anticipated movie. I desperately want to watch this movie like “The Lighthouse“. And yeah, I’ve watched it. And it’s a fantastic movie. It’s a beautiful movie. It reminds me of why I love cinema much. I love cinema because of films like this, a film with spellbinding, hypnotizing experience, cinematic painting, and the power of art. Just thank God, I didn’t initially expect much but only heard from critics and reviews. I think they were exaggerated much about this movie. Just gorgeous, I’m even numb to want to talk about this film.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a French movie directed and written by Céline Sciamma. It’s a historical drama film, nominated in Palme d’Or until it won Queer Palm. Sciamma also became the first female director to win the award. The story is about a painter, Marianne (Noémi Merlant), is hired to draw a painting of a young aristocratic woman, Héloïse (Adèle Hanel). At the time, there is a tradition where when a woman in a noble family must get married, they must be painted first. After painting, then she can marry a man.

It’s said that Héloïse will marry a rich man from Italy. The problem is, she has never met him. Her mother (Valeria Golino) has arranged the marriage and the painting to convince the prospective husband about the charm of the future wife. Marianne learned that the painter had previously failed to paint Héloïse and was expelled. Her mother arranged Marianne to be close to Héloïse. She tried to observe it as closely as possible and then painted it through the memory of her conversation. In secret, Héloïse never knew what the real motive was for Marianne’s arrival. However, who would have thought the arrival and obsession they give each other become another influence of perspective.

With this movie, I can’t say anything about what flaw I want to find while this is a flawless movie. I can assume “Call Me by Your Name” is one of the most beautiful movies as well. But, for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, I just could not. Sciamma used a periodic approach on the coast of Brittany in the 1770s. Every frame and composition by Claire Mathon is so beautiful. It’s like the frame trying to unite with the camera, the lens like a forbidden romance story about the painting of a lady looking into the fire.

It’s a beautiful yet dreamy tale about two women who just want to fill their lust and ego. They didn’t want to fail each other and want to succeed from such an isolated island. With such an LGBT love story and a story about forbidden love, the instinctive part of the affair lies in why this movie is obvious with the unreserved intimacy. But, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” isn’t just an LGBT movie with such a theme. Sciamma wants to appreciate the painting, the portrait of every scene. The soft-core sex scenes don’t even last as long as “Blue Is the Warmest Color”.

I always love French cinema. They even appreciate animation like abstract art too. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a slow-burn movie but you are always impressed with what the next scene would be, not just the beautiful paintings of color palette and frames. As part of Queer cinema too, this movie has a lot of influence, especially in most Alfred Hitchcock’s works such as “Vertigo“, the ghost part. But, it reminds me of a lot with an expression of Ingmar Bergman especially “Persona“. The relationship between Marianne and Héloïse, in my opinion, is similar to Alma and Elisabet especially the shot in the mirror when two characters hug from behind.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of the four films in the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Moreover, part of the production team of this movie including the producer, cinematographer, and first director’s assistant is also, all of them, women. For Sciamma, writing a plot from this film isn’t as easy as other movies. It’s about the process, about how Marianne and Héloïse fell in love step by step. There are times in the middle and Sciamma was patient in building emotional bonds between characters through a series of lines, conversations, expressions, and points of view.

The sound plays a very good role in this film even though there is almost no score and music. There is only two music in this film. But, the character’s emotions were able to maximize it. There is the acapella sequence where a group of women sings near a bonfire. The Antoni Vivaldi one is one in the climax at the end of the movie. And I haven’t talked about the ending yet. The ending, similar to “Call Me by Your Name”, is just one of the best close-ups and ending I have ever seen especially in an LGBT movie. It’s like the movie, letting your emotion flow in yourself without having to hold back and wait for you to feel. Just powerful.

The plot doesn’t only focus on two women who fell in love with each other. But, there are many sub-plots in this film. The conflict between mother and her daughter, arranged marriage without a will, abortion as a powerful sub-plot in this movie, and much contemporary narrative. I like this movie not just as how the movie applies a modern woman’s standards. It’s more like patriarchy, about accepting and breaking rules, not just a story about finding yourself, about accepting yourself and your destiny. Not like that.

In general, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has its boundaries between bleak realism options, the security of realists with the complete and clear artistic vision from the director. Céline Sciamma chose the last option, putting the film in the climax and most perfect ending, like a wave of water filled with emotional intensity. Very quiet and very silent. This movie didn’t have to tell or be obvious of what the director and this movie is about. It’s not just another film about forbidden romance and LGBT. But, I’m glad this is one of the best gifts to end the decade.

Salman Al Farisi

An Indonesian who loves to watch and read everything. A literary student who likes to write about reviews and essays on Crackdown Review. But, I just wannabe critics who love arthouse than anything.

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