Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Footsteps and Fire

A profoundly moving film that practically defies description or explanation, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a staggering masterpiece and easily the best film of 2019. I cannot say I have ever experienced a conclusion to a film like this, left awash in tears as the credits began to roll, physically weeping and unable to breathe in face of its enveloping poignancy and sublime truths. 

Oddly enough I watched the film while on a flight home to Los Angeles, so maybe it was my mask that was constricting my breath and amplifying my physical response to this mesmerizing work of art. Either way, I was sitting in front of my youngest daughter on the plane and she could feel my seat shuddering. She asked if I was okay. I said I was crying. She asked why. I said, “Because the movie I just watched was so beautiful.”

As a former Army paratrooper, graduate of an all-boys prep school, and a film-lover, I have spent most of my life surrounded by the male of the species while predominantly consuming entertainment produced by them. As the father of two daughters, who’s taken note of the fact that most of the films at the top of my preferences here on Letterboxd are made by men, I’ve recently created an intention to increase my consumption of films written and directed by women so I can better understand the women I love and live with, increase my exposure to different voices in cinema, and hopefully actually become a better man in the process. Wow, was this ever an amazing way to begin that journey. 

I must admit the film took some time to grow on me, with its sparse seaside setting, equally sparse dialogue, and languid approach to story telling. In fact, one of the notions that struck me was that as this is a period piece, it is clear that the characters of this early 19th century or late 18th century (?) era certainly had more time on their hands to be in silence, to be in contemplation, to be in the process of making art, or to just be, that seems so divorced from our present reality. In this way, the “slow burn” aspect of the film really seems in keeping with some of its themes, pun intended, especially as the story progressed and I became more immersed in the dilemma that these perfectly constructed characters face in the film. 

Speaking of which, the performances across the board are luminous, nuanced, and expertly realized. I was taken aback by the artist Marianne’s sense of self (by played by the excellent Noémie Merlant), her methodical and steadfast approach to her work, and her stark and severe beauty. Her subject, Héloïse, on the other hand, (played by the brilliant Adèle Haenel) was beguiling, fleeting, confounding, and ever-transient. Her house servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) was given an enthralling arc and often seemed the fulcrum on which their relationship balanced. 

I loved how early on the artist confided in Sophie how Héloïse wouldn’t smile, which among other things was frustrating her efforts to surreptitiously paint her portrait without her knowledge. Sophie responded by asking whether she had simply tried to make her smile by just being funny. The simplicity of this notion seemed to break the tension and dread pervading the coastal home, while simultaneously humanizing the trio. Later, Sophie is featured in one of the most striking scenes in the film when she goes to a medicine woman to have a medical procedure performed. The juxtaposition of the small children in bed with Sophie touching her hands while the older woman worked over her provided a perspective of the events taking place that I’m not sure I could have ever conceived from my male perspective. 

Another favorite moment was the “feast” outside in the darkness as a veritable coven of women sang a haunting incantation while the lovers smoldered over one another, so distant yet so close. The song they sing together was infused with a rhythmic, hallucinatory aspect and for me conveyed the mystery and awe that is “woman.”

When the film hits its stride, the romance that occurs is imbued with such yearning, tenderness, and authenticity that I couldn’t help but be consumed by the affair, struck by my own memories and experiences of young hopeless love. 

Fire of course is a major presence in the film, corresponding in my view to its representation of passion and romance balanced against its propensity to destroy and consume. There is hardly an interior scene in the film without fire, complete with its cracking and popping to accompany its devouring insatiable presence. Fire, and footsteps, are recurring motifs in the film. The sound of uncomfortable shoes against ages-old hardwood from room to room in the house, for me signify the mass and age of the home, likely existing for generations, representing a structural system that has been in place for so long, dictating the actions and emotions and destinies of its denizens, without concern for their wants and dreams. But also the footsteps are a signifier of movement, of the passage of time, the world unstoppably churning forth, replete with the idea that what is currently present in our lives will not be here forever, that “this too shall pass,” both what we consider good and what we consider bad. 

There is a scene towards the end of the film depicting the lovers staring at each other before falling asleep, neither wishing time to proceed forward, nor wanting to fall asleep and allow tomorrow, with its obligations and mysteries, to come to pass. I think anyone who has been in love and faced the loss of that love, either temporarily or permanently, will resonate with the quiet intimacy of that scene. 

The literary framing device of Orpheus and Eurydice is also poignant and expertly interwoven into the narrative to provide context and mytho-poetic significance. There is a powerful payoff to the inclusion of this story that really starting my tears flowing. 

Finally, the ending is a thing of absolute beauty. Without spoiling it, I’ll just say that to me there seemed to be multiple endings to the film. As each one was presented I felt it to be perfectly crafted and could have stood on its own to end the film right there ... until another moment presented itself, and another, each one more powerful than the one preceding it. When the actual conclusion does finally arrive, It is such a towering achievement of acting, music, and courageous direction, that I’ll contend it could arguably be one of the most brilliant final shots in cinema history. 

This is one of those rare films that inhabits the viewer, forever changing them as a human being. I’m humbled to have experienced this magnificent work and am excited to see what else Céline Sciamma has to offer the world.

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