Tuesday Review – Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

films, review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’ve wanted to watch this film for ages now. I’d heard it was good. It sounded good. I know that I was going to love it. So, why did it take so long? My poor attention span. I’ve been watching films at home since March because of the pandemic which means I’m generally doing multiple things when I’m watching films. I might be writing another blog pot, tempted by my phone, or editing photos. It depends how much I have to do that day. It’s not that I mean to let my mind wander but it happens. I’m not like it in a cinema. Don’t go thinking that I’m one of those people who gets their phone out every few minutes. I concentrate in a cinema. Not at home. It’s difficult to find a two hour slot when I’m not also trying to do something else. So, a subtitled film isn’t exactly a good mix. So, when I found a window on Sunday, I knew what I had to do.

I’ll be honest, I’ve nearly given up on this review several times already tonight. Not because I didn’t like it but because I did. This is one of those films that gets under your skin. It seems like such a simple idea but there is so much complexity to get to grips with. How do you even start to unpack it? The film raises questions about love, womanhood, art, and identity. It is tantalising as the chemistry bounces between the two women at the centre of the story as they attempt to help each other navigate their lives.

When artist Marianne is employed by a countess to paint her daughter, she has no idea how complicated the whole thing will become. The girl, Héloïse, is to be married off to a nobleman from Milan. Unfortunately, Héloïse does not agree with the marriage and has refused to sit for previous painters. So, Marianne is introduced as her walking companion and work on the portrait in secret. Marianne must observe Héloïse without her realising and create an image that her future husband will approve of. Naturally, Héloïse discovers the deception but, instead of reacting with anger, she is disappointed with the result. So, she agrees to sit for a second attempt.

It is this decision that flips the film on its head. Suddenly the observed Héloïse becomes the observer. As she asks Marianne, “If you look at me, who do I look at?” As a figure in a painting, it doesn’t really matter who Héloïse is looking at. It is something put onto her by the artist and the viewer. In being the observed, her viewpoint doesn’t matter but, in turn, that gives her the freedom to observe unnoticed. Portrait of a Lady showcases he importance and significance of the female gaze. For so long, women were objects to be looked at but here they are able to see. Whether that be as artist or subject.

This is such a provocative film and it helps that it is such a beautiful one. It looks almost like a living painting. Every shot has been framed perfectly and certain colours are made to pop. It is a film the takes its inspiration from many places. It has a gothic quality to it but also has the feel of a sweeping romance. It makes the most of every look and every touch between the pair and can make even the most chaste moments seem utterly filthy. The lack of musical elements in this film only help highlight its impact. Most of the film is more muted in keeping with Héloïse’s modest upbringing. The brief snatches of music that do come in swell and denote the freedom she finds.

I know that in the last few paragraphs that I haven’t done this film much justice but it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It is a powerful and evocative story made by an exciting filmmaker. It has so many meanings and aspects to it that it’s almost overwhelming. Yet there is an underlying calm to this film that makes it digestible. It’s something that I can’t wait to see again.

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