Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★

When the dress was on fire, I really wanted Marianne to say ‘huh, I think we’re onto something here’ and then Ongo Gablogian shows up. Well, the Portrait of a Lady on Fire might’ve not needed the best art collector but there was a lot that could’ve been done to make this into something memorable. Céline Sciamma is known for making social realist dramas that tackle feminist themes such as Tomboy and Girlhood, but many were saying this may be her finest work. A feminist lesbian period love story which some found spellbinding while others were bored with it, that sounds like my kind of film. It was entrancing to look at but was frankly dull and derivative.

Beginning in perhaps the most cliched manner of recent memory, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an island to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne attempts to capture the essence of Héloïse, a common problem of many a painter. In doing so, a passionate romance blossoms between them. Maybe spoiler, the fire represents the essence of her beauty and their romance. The love story is quite nicely portrayed because of its universal relatability but that doesn’t stop it from the premise and film being incredibly pretentious.

First of all, before I lose it like an old man, you have to admit, it’s a gorgeous film. The cinematography of Claire Mathon is wonderful. You could even say that film looks like a painting, with good use of pull focus and rule of thirds. The shots were sometimes quite tight or open which worked well. The costumes were great, as the dresses nicely contrasted each other. Along with an editing style which seemed to mirrored the calm waves crashing on the shore.

The film is not bad, but it’s not great. Honestly, it’s actually very annoying how loved this film is because it’s not very original or insightful. I want to point out one scene that is probably my favourite in the whole two hours, the card scene between Marianne, Héloïse and the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). They were laughing and having fun, this looked genuine and they weren’t acting anymore. If they’re not then that’s good direction. Because this showed what the film was missing, authenticity.

Along with that, it really is boring. I know that’s the laziest criticism but it really is. It’s fine to be slow paced but there was nothing to meditate on. Nothing happened in the first half of the film. Then, suddenly the couple get together and off they go. Then back to slow pace. It was tonally inconsistent. It has universal ideas about love which are incredibly relatable, but they’re not ground-breaking. Probably because I am a man, the whole effect of switching the male gaze to a lesbian perspective doesn’t really change anything for me either.

There’s a simple story that has a universal appeal and looks amazing, that has a massive appeal and hey if you like it, then why not. However, I think what has come out is that Sciamma believes she has made something profound, meditative and inventive but it’s incredibly simple. You can’t expect depth from something that is more of a pop music video or a perfume advert.

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