Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

Part of Covideodrome: A Quarantine Challenge.
No. 14: a film about artists and models.
Also 52 films by women 2020: 39/52.

The late, much-missed Observer film critic Philip French once said that although he thought Céline Sciamma's film Water Lilies was made for noble reasons, he couldn't help feeling like a voyeur watching it. This is the danger of making films about clandestine, secretive worlds: on the plus side, you give people from outside these groups a chance to see them. On the down side, you give people from outside these groups a chance to see them. Certainly with Tomboy I felt that the same amount could be said with less shown.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels like a statement of defiance, but not in a purely defensive way. It feels like Sciamma has spent a long time thinking about how she sees her female characters, which is one of the major challenges queer cinema poses to conventional film grammar; how do you depict a character who might be the viewpoint character and the object of desire? Here it's baked into every frame, as well as the motor of the story. The potentially voyeuristic, non-consensual aspects of cinematic gaze are tackled head-on; Marianne must paint Héloïse without her knowing about it, because she knows the portrait will be used to present her to a suitor for marriage. But in doing this Marianne gets to understand her sitter, showing how gaze decoupled from misogyny can actually take us to a place of understanding and empathy.

The reason why Héloïse doesn't want to get married is, it must be said, no mystery to anyone who's heard the hype about Sciamma's film being a great lesbian romance. Given that, you'd think it would drag for the central couple not to realise their feelings for each other until well past the halfway mark - but it doesn't, and everything in the last hour is a validation of Sciamma's patience. I did, initially, wonder if it was a good idea to make an epic period romance without any incidental music. But when the music does come, you'll understand why she held back.

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