A minor controversy took place last year when the Centre National de la Cinématographie selected Les Miserables over fan favorite Portrait of a Lady on Fire to represent France in the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film process (not that either had a shot against Parasite). I’m here to tell you the CNC had it right.
Don’t get me wrong. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a good film, but comes way short from being the transcendental experience that has been advertised.
It’s late in the eighteenth century and like in most of the world, women in France are treated as trade goods, unless independently wealthy. Marianne (the drop dead gorgeo… super talented Noémie Merlant), a freelance painter, is hired by a countess to make a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adele Haenel, BPM). The fresco is to be sent to a suitor in Milan with whom Héloïse is to be betrothed.
Aware of these designs, Héloïse refuses to pose voluntarily, so Marianne pretends to be a walking companion while sketching her on the side. Isolated in a small island, their relationship evolves, even though the clock is ticking and the initial betrayal is bound to come out.
The love story is told in flashbacks, hinting early on that the outcome wasn’t the desired one. But more than forbidden love, the film is about art as a way to overcome social barriers (in this case, women’s subservience to the desires of men). Midway through Portrait, the movie stops on its tracks to dedicate several minutes to the maid’s efforts to get an abortion. It’s a compelling little detour, one in which all the women band together to guarantee the wellbeing of one of them.
Seldom I’ve seen a movie as carefully photographed as Portrait. There’s plenty of stunning shots rooted in basic elements like fire, water and monochrome dresses. Yet the formalism doesn’t hurt the film’s themes but enhances them. I kept going back to Birds of Prey and how for all its posturing, it was toothless. Portrait of a Lady on Fire does far more to undermine the patriarchy without the self-importance or the budget of Harley Quinn’s shenanigans.
One of the shortcomings of Portrait is the characters’ one-note personalities. Sure, we empathize and root for them, but their relationship feels a bit empty, merely the result of attraction and availability. First cousin Blue Is the Warmest Colour felt more raw, not just sexually, but emotionally. Three cold planets.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now playing at the Roxy Theatre.