Portrait of a Lady on Fire

When it comes to the disenfranchisement of gender and identity groups the entertainment industry wins double-jeopardy. The issue of homosexuality representation in the entertainment industry has been pertinently ignored and subsequently, in response to the growing outcries of ostracization from the various letters (LGBTQIA), there has been a steady increase in film and television representatives. Letter representation in recent years has triumphed for the T’s “Transparent,” A’s “Bojack Horseman,” B’s “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and G’s “Call me by your Name," and for all the LGBTQIA in Robert Epstein's "The Celluloid Closet." None of these voices would have reached the global and mainstream attention they have today if it weren't for Epstein's "Celluloid Closet." An American classic, it covers the history of how motion pictures, especially Hollywood films, had portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters. "Celluloid" pioneered in the portrayal of homosexuality during a time when many would have never broached the subject. Ironically, the entertainment industry is where symbolic representations of gender are created so naturally, it is also where they evolve. Flash forward. Awarded Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, French minimalist Céline Sciamma has created a voice of hope for L’s in her direction of a love story between a young painter who falls for her mysterious muse. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel star in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire," takes place in France, 1760. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who has just left the French convent. Because she is a reluctant bride-to-be, Marianne arrives under the guise of companionship, observing Héloïse by day and secretly painting her by firelight at night. The electricity in the air is felt with each cautious conversation between Marianne and Heloise. As the two women orbit one another, intimacy and attraction grow as they share Héloïse's first moments of freedom. Héloïse's portrait soon becomes a collaborative act of and a testament to their love and a maternalized confrontation of their internal demons. Gag. I really wanted to stop watching this film. It is completely the opposite of what I have expected from two women sharing the screen. Do NOT watch this film if you are expecting to see action. Much of what goes on between the characters is internalized and left up to the viewer's interpretation. In doing this, Schiamma describes the feeling of love as an uncharted, unknown force that compels us to act questionably. Albeit, they are in love, Celine Sciamma writes her characters as people first not as lovers. Heloise is careful and calculated in her actions and words to Marianne who is much more brass and outgoing. I will chalk it up to my lack of life experience but I expected the characters to be more physical. In lieu of glib characters and it’s passing of the Bechdel test, Sciamma arouses mysterious energy that oozes out of each of her frames.

The cinematography in Portrait is tantalizing. Director of Photography Claire Mathon (Atlantics) depicts the raw sensual nature of lust and human desire through her use of point of view. This camera technique works in tangent with a compelling screenplay and the mise-en-scene of a grand French villa to propel the story forward. The most memorable use of point of view is the opening shot: Marianne is revealed riding bow; cut to her pov which reveals her company on a small raft; Closing shot: Marianne is facing away from the rest of the crew; Her point of view is used to establish where she is going. In the case of this scene, the point of view is used to internalize Marianne's destination and force the viewer, in turn, to question her motives (she clutches her cargo tightly to her body). Every frame looks like a painting. This is achieved by excellent coordination between the lighting, set, and production crews. The dietetic (pouring of wine, brush strokes), non-diegetic sound (waves, sand shifting), editing, and genre also help create a mood of high-class excellency. The notion of high brow art and emotion is further reinforced in the color theory inspired costuming. Marianne is dressed in red, a symbol of youth and excitement; Héloïse is draped in blue a sign of sadness and depression; Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) wears white, a sign of rebirth. Like a painting, everything about this film seems intentional.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is a film you shouldn’t miss.

© 2023 by Giorgio Citarella II