Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★½

I've sat with this one for a month, having finally watched it after its US release, subsequent to tearing up the festival chatter and best-of lists in 2019. With the benefit of mulling it over and hindsight, I can comfortably break hiatus here and say that no, I did not like this. I cannot remember a single moment in this film that sticks with me and makes me think that this is something other than an award-seeking missile, locked in with rube-assisted targeting arrays.

It's been long enough that I'm reasonably certain that I'm not a victim of betrayed hype. I'm over the initial "huh" feeling of watching something that's been hailed by a thousand inane "yaaas queen" posts and coming away unmoved. In this sense it's like an amplified version of last year's The Souvenir; something that got traction for checking off some demographic boxes, and riding a degree of technical stateliness that smokescreened the complete lack of blood in it. Both films remind me of a particularly well-embalmed corpse.

Love stories have got to have some real, moving emotion in them. One of those things that should be too stupidly obvious to state up front and yet one keeps having to say it. This is supposed to be the story of two women who feel such attraction to each other that it contravenes the expectations of all of the social structures around them, crossing personal and professional boundaries. And yet this is so reserved and airless, even in scenes with extensive skin, that it was impossible for me to feel anything for the two principals involved. What Céline Sciamma was intending to do, besides angle for trophies, is beyond me in terms of directing her talent. Noémie Merlant comes across with some weird mix of boredom and stoicism, and you get a clue about what to expect in her initial scenes in the manor, sitting naked while her clothes dry. I don't expect women to be paraded in front of the dreaded male gaze, so it wasn't the lack of eroticism in the scene that got me. It was the overwhelming sense that I was looking at someone who just kind of incidentally had a body, a strange detachment that works against any sort of convincing romantic attachment later on. Adèle Haenel, for her part, is the muse that drives the desire, and for the life of me I cannot understand what about her is supposed to drive Marianne's (Merlant) interest. Sciamma shoots Haenel with a sense of weird, childlike preciousness throughout this that undercuts Heloise's (Haenel) desirability as anything more than a costume-cute bauble. You're selling me a deep relationship, and even if I'm looking for reasons to buy I just can't feature it.

The studied, overly color-cued camera work is oppressive here. The greatest effect that the shots of carefully beautiful and well-heeled interior scenes achieve is to make this feel like a particularly slow museum tour. The beach scenes are some of the few breaks from this, but the filters are jarring and the sequences invite comparison to Elisa y Marcela, a far better film about a forbidden lesbian romance in times of darkest Europe. Rather than establish an ordered backdrop against which this transgressive tale unfolds, the way this is shot serves to drench this in an unintended class narrative, in which even the serving drudges are pretty and the two scions of wealth make a charming magazine-spread visit to their lessers in the village, where light amounts of witch-baiting fuckery are dispensed.

That might have stuck in my craw the most. The treatment of a pretty damn real conundrum on the part of "the help," a peripheral element to the story, as something to be mined for some brief artistic inspiration in between sequences of inexplicable swooning in a relationship that has little reason to exist. The character of Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) bugged me considerable; she exists in a space that seems reserved for a household pet. Subject to intermittent interest from the two leads, but still very much occupying a subservient, lower role that allows for little more than serving as a tool for self-actualization (hiss) of others. More than a hint of poverty tourism occurs in this film through Sophie, and it grates as a beam in the eye of something that clearly believes that it's advancing the cause of enlightenment.

Unsurprising that this has gotten the rep that it has. Disappointing nonetheless.

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