Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): FILM REVIEW

Opinion | 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Understands Queer Desire ...
Source: The New York Times.

Since self-quarantining myself at home during this worldwide pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to watch more films, including those which I’d been meaning to, but never got around to because of a busy schedule. Now, I can take my time and go through them, whether they are good or bad…

One of them is Portrait of a Lady on Fire (titled Portrait de la jeune fille en feu in French), which was released later last year in France, but only earlier this year in the UK. I’d seen trailers and fan videos on YouTube dedicated to this film, and I’ve also watched many of the director, Céline Sciamma’s, other films, which I found pretty good. I found POALOF’s trailer to be super-polished and well-made, and I was curious in getting my hands on it for a viewing.

Even though it won’t be released on DVD until this summer, the film is already available to watch online via YouTube films and Hulu, albeit with a fee. Luckily, I got a one-month free trial with Hulu, so I was able to access POALOF for free. I’ll be writing my review of this film in this post (which will contain SPOILERS, so heads up!), and I’ll give my thoughts on it all. Let’s get started!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): Film Review

Now, I admit that I’d spoiled much of the film for myself by watching the fan-made videos on YouTube, as well as reading the synopsis on Wikipedia. That said, going into the film, I already knew what was going to happen more-or-less, but I still wanted to see the entirety of it for the extra details and scenes that were otherwise left out from the fan-made video and Wikipedia.

For the most part, there weren’t many details left out that I saw in the film. The most notable ones were of Sophie the maid’s abortion (somewhat graphic) and the nude scenes from Marianne and Héloïse, the latter making sense since YouTube doesn’t permit full-frontal nude clips…but I digress.

Right off the bat, I was blown away at the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography. Sciamma certainly outdid herself, capturing the wild, rugged beauty of the Brittany coastline in the late 18th century. The windy, cold Atlantic is, from what I found, a symbol of Héloïse’s desire to be free– the scene in which she tries swimming in the violent waters represents her longing to integrate herself into the wild savagery of the ocean, as her own personality is wild, turbulent, and unrestricted.

Ultimately, however, she reluctantly ends up retreating to shore, which symbolizes the pull of societal standards, as she’s betrothed to a royal marriage against her will. If anything, the Brittany coast is the physical embodiment of Héloïse’s character, as she herself retains a quiet, seemingly calm composure– deep down, however, she has anger and a sense of individuality that she doesn’t want to be restrained from.

There is an extremely subtle, but notable detail that permeates throughout the film, and that’s the use of the word “you.” Given that the film is in French, it helps to know a bit of the language to understand the word “you” and power dynamics associated with it. For most of the film, the interactions between Marianne and Héloïse operate on “vous,” which is the formal “you”– “vous” is used to address people of higher statuses, such as kings, noblemen, or even bosses. In this case, both characters use “you,” not only because Héloïse is a noblewoman, but also because their primary interaction is based on business, as Marianne is the modest painter commissioned to paint Héloïse. Even as their bond grows, they continue to address each other with “vous,” in part because of the business aspect, and also to maintain a sense of distance in this forbidden love affair.

However, towards the end of the film, something changes. Héloïse tells Marianne, “Retourne-toi” (“turn around”) just before the painter leaves her. Here, the informal “you” (“tu“) is used, in which Héloïse finally lets down her guard and addresses Marianne as her lover, her equal. It’s intimate, and it’s the noblewoman’s last goodbye before they part ways. Simple as the phrase is, it’s haunting– just as haunting as seeing Héloïse in her white wedding dress from Marianne’s perspective.

For a great piece explaining the “tu/vous” used in the film, refer to this article here.

The wedding dress (and, in general, the costumes in the film) is also notable in itself, as it’s sheer white and almost transparent. What struck me was that it didn’t really look like a typical, elegant wedding dress, but rather something almost ghostly. Its appearance makes it apropos for Marianne’s visions of Héloïse haunting her throughout the film, as it represents the guilt and shame that the painter herself feels, as she engages in the forbidden love affair.

Perhaps I’m going too deep with this analysis, but the color scheme for Marianne and Héloïse’s dresses also captures something significant about each of their characters. Marianne is almost always in red, whereas Héloïse is usually in green. The way I see it, Héloïse’s green symbolizes not only the wild nature of her character, but also her verdant, almost nascent re-introduction into the real world, after years spent in the convent. Her curiosity of learning and of Marianne manifests in her looks during her daily walks and night-time readings– even if she harbors a lot of anger and passion, she still is innocent, almost virgin-like until Marianne comes into her life. With Marianne’s red, she represents the passion and liberty that is inspiring, especially as a female painter in a male-dominated profession back in the 18th century.

Most importantly, it wouldn’t be a complete review without discussing the female gaze. After all, it’s the main theme of the film. Not only does POALOF have an all-female cast, but it also has a female director– as a result, it gives us viewers a different perspective on feminine beauty and sexuality. The longing stares between the two main characters are absolutely electric and free from the typical, almost-fetish male gaze that one can see in films like Blue is the Warmest Color (directed by a man). The nude scenes in POALOF feel different: they’re still objectifying, but under the pretense of a woman– they also show a more-accurate depiction of the female body, with wrinkles and even arm-pit hair, which add depth and humanity to these characters at hand.

I could say a lot more about the female gaze in POALOF (e.g. painting scenes, Orpheus motif), but for the sake of keeping this post a bit shorter, I’ll just jump to the final scene of the film, in which Marianne and Héloïse are at the opera years later. Marianne sees Héloïse from her viewing balcony, but Héloïse does not see her (“elle m’a pas vu”). However, we see Héloïse crying passionately as the scene plays out– one can say that she was incredibly-moved by the operatic piece at hand, as Marianne had play the same song for her years prior. Another interpretation of this scene is that Héloïse is crying, because she knows that Marianne is also at the opera– but she refuses to look at her.  Choosing to look at Marianne would risk losing her again, once the opera ends and they go home to carry on with their separate lives. By not looking at her, Héloïse’s choosing the deny her presence a second time, in order to preserve the memory she has of her.

All in all, I enjoyed POALOF. I believe it’s Sciamma’s best film to date, and it’s my favorite film of hers. Cinematography was perfection, the chemistry between the actresses palpable, and themes from the female perspective refreshing. I appreciated Sciamma choosing to gloss over the sex scenes, choosing instead to portray the sensual over the sexual for female gratification. That was a tasteful decision, in my opinion.

I also found myself surprised that this film, despite showing a romance between two women, was more than just a LGBT movie. Rather, it was merely a love story that just happened to have two women in it, and how powerful the female bond can be in both the platonic and romantic sense.

My criticisms of POALOF are incredibly minor, and mainly stem from personal artistic direction. Much of it has to do with the nude scenes– while they’re important in showcasing the female body from a female perspective, I think it was a little too overdone– especially with the scene of Héloïse smearing “magical” paste under her armpit (with body hair) to make herself fly. That was a bit excessive, but other than that, it was an extremely well-done and beautiful film, as well as one that I would watch again.


Grade: A


— The Finicky Cynic

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7 thoughts on “Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): FILM REVIEW

      1. SP

        It’s a bit late but I thought I’d come back here as I finally was able to watch the film. And of course it was an excellent film, beautifully made. I’m not so good at critique so I’ll mostly leave it at that aha.
        Thank you for explaining the vouvoyer/tutoyer aspect with their dialogue, it makes more sense now why they would use vous. I also didn’t notice the change to tu, retourne-toi, I was too caught up in the emotion of Marianne leaving aha. So clever.

        I think this is just me, but I guess one of my few complaints is that the love affair was so short (but intense) that it didn’t seem believable in a way. Maybe if it had been stretched out to months or even years I would feel differently.

        Anyway, great review!

      2. rebbit7

        Appreciate your take on the film! I do agree with you that the time frame of the romance (which was about two weeks) was way too short to be believable. But I suspended my disbelief, as it is a work of fiction, after all! Glad you enjoyed the film, too!

  1. Pingback: Things I’ve Been Doing While in Quarantine (PART TWO) – The Finicky Cynic

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