Review – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

After thirty minutes into Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I came to the conclusion that there would be no men playing major roles, and that gave me a feeling of relief.

It would mean that, along the shore and in the modeling room, the characters would not have to succumb to the egos so dominant, the way that men can sometimes fill a room with either a painfully artificial charisma, or something natural and magnetizing that just as equally destroys a more conversational nature of reality.

The plot is starkly simple: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been brought to an isle or peninsula with the task of painting a young woman in secret. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) assumes that Marianne is a caretaker after her stint in the convent, before her eventual arranged marriage to a Milanese man. In truth, Marianne must paint Héloïse without her knowing, in order to send the portrait ahead as proof that the looks Héloïse must promise are genuine. Héloïse will not pose, which means that Marianne must retain the details until she can exact them.

To start, it is the perfect movie to watch in the time of coronavirus. The film is decidedly quiet and calm, and the script minimal. The passage of time is relatively slow, as the plot takes somewhere along the lines of two weeks to pass. And the interactions between characters is small, as there are really only four. It is a humbling reminder that, for much of human history, rural living as opposed to the “madness of crowds” was the norm. To see the ladies with face masks to block the wind, and not a virus, one cannot help right now to conflate the two. But what I am trying to say overall is that the interactions, as small as they are, are historically common. Social distancing had a different name in the past.

As I stated in the introduction, I was glad to have a female only cast. And on one level the isle is a place where the characters can be free of the tendrils of a man’s world. Marianne and Héloïse have conversations about male nude models, and how, as a painter, Marianne is not allowed to paint nude men, as a sort of glass ceiling that prevents her entrance to high art. But she does the work in secret: “It is tolerated,” she says.

The difference between “tolerated” and “condoned” or “permissible” turns out to be quite large, and this chasm is one perspective of the film through which to see the passion of Eros burning in them.

The struggle for art is another lens. Painting as a form of art has seen a resurgence, whether it is in the commission for a portrait in Killing Commendatore by Harukami Maruki, the thrilling murder mystery The Silent Patient (which I never ended up finishing), or in other mediums like Dark Souls 3, where it is implied that a character paints the bleak and snowy world of Ariandel. “I’d like to paint a picture,” he says, “of a cold, dark, and lonely place.”

Painting benefits in its analog nature and the intimate and private methods of delivery. For Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne flits between horror at her verisimilitude and madness for lacking the essential character on canvas, and nowhere does it seem as if Marianne is ecstatic about her painting. Instead, Noémie Merlant plays the art as necessary, and it lends credit to the theme of the film, which is that the art is a needed method for conveying the feeling of being alive in that moment. The product that comes out of it is simply the reminder. It is the intimate space between the viewer and the art where the magic really takes place. One of the final things the two discuss in the film is to change the story of their time together from regret to remembrance. After a subplot concludes with the servant girl Sophie, much of the art carries that weight. It simply must be documented, and none of the three women ever show signs of objection.

I cannot even begin to describe to you the beauty of this film’s cinematography. That is largely because I lack the language I would need to mention the technical details, but no matter. It serves the story wonderfully. In their first walk out along the grounds of the estate, Marianne continues to peek at Héloïse’s face along the cliff, so that she might paint her later. We are in the same place as Marianne; we have charged sensibilities toward Héloïse’s face as well, because we recognize the urgency. Here, each time Marianne turns her face, it opens up our sightline for Héloïse, and the ensuing panic of being caught, of being caught looking so intently, shocks the viewer as equally as it does Marianne, who Merlant plays as stabbed by Héloïse’s sharp blue eyes. This is a forty-five second scene, and the movie is two hours of brilliant moments like this.

Historical fiction can be magical for the way it calls out to the universally human. More than ever, people are engaged in devices and smart phones and have been locked like the panther in Rilke’s cage without even being aware. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is beautiful for teaching us again how to pay attention. The characters in two hours recognize more about each other than most people do in their entire lives, and that is because art is a method for training us how to look. For now, the movie is available on Hulu, and there were no advertisements. Please consider spending some time with it, as there is so much to learn.

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