Portrait of a Lady on Fire: an electric film that reinvents an entire genre

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A woman perches gracefully as a passenger, as the men toil to row her across the ocean. A wave crashes, and her luggage slides into the water. The woman tuts, takes off her coat and swims to retrieve it, her petticoat and corset clinging to her skin. Once she’s clambered back onboard, our static conceptions of the period drama are shattered. And with this, Director Céline Sciamma lays out the essence of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Women aren’t just here to look pretty. This may be set in 1760, but the moment Noémie Merlant dived into the sea, we could feel that these characters fizzed with electricity. Forget Colin Firth getting rained on, this is what romance looks like in 2020.

A love story created by women and explicitly about women. Was that so much to ask? Portrait of a Lady on Fire is such a simple film: it’s not trying to be clever but makes so much that came before it seem unfathomably stupid. 

‘A love story created by women and explicitly about women.’

If you’re reading this and you haven’t watched the film yet, stop it. You’re spoiling it for yourself: not because of spoilers, but just because everyone deserves to watch this film for the first time, uncompromised. I know the biggest inhibitor for most Durham students will be the fact it has subtitles. As anglophones, we’re just not used to having to inconvenience ourselves. But only 20% of the world speak English: our fear of subtitles is holding us back, and it shows. Sign up for a free student account on Mubi.com, watch the film, and then come back here and we can talk. 

My favourite thing about this film is the awkwardness. It’s not that Portrait operates on shock factor – everything in this film was sensitively approached and served a purpose. It’s more that it’s not looking to appease our expectations. Céline Sciamma has spoken about how this is a film from the female gaze. Adèle Haenel, who plays Héloïse, scowls her way through the first half an hour. “I haven’t even seen her smile.” “Have you tried to be funny?” We’re so used to pandering to impress those around us, but these women remind us of the value of sincerity. They stare at each other, or at the sea, or at paintings, and we are left to gawk in the silence. In Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, we see the serious concentration of a dedicated painter: she frowns as she works, and she is her own master. 

‘The film is not looking to appease our expectations.’

We feel guilty as an audience watching Héloïse be painted without her knowledge, but also admire the practical professionalism of Marianne. For a romance, this is surprisingly unromantic: the women just have a series of things they have to realistically get on with, without time for the fuss. I love the moment they just squat down and sit on the sandy beach in their dresses. Director Céline was in a long-term relationship with lead actress Adèle, but the couple split up before they decided to make this film together. The romance of this film hits harder because of that history.

The film is set in blustery northern France, with the waves crashing against the cliffs to reinforce their isolation. My dad winced at every shot of the cliffs; the connotations of suicide constantly linger. This is a paused moment in time, where women reflect on their status, on their desires and needs, to briefly forget their inescapable situation. Their rebellion is subtle and inevitably acquiescent, but stings even stronger because it is so soft. 

‘Their rebellion is subtle and inevitably acquiescent, but stings even stronger because it is so soft’

Luàna Bajrami as Sophie the maid takes no nonsense. It’s a smart way to address class: there is dignity in the maid’s sense of purpose and competency. My favourite moment is a tableau scene, where the three main characters are lined up before their dinner. The lady is chopping vegetables, the painter is supervising, and the maid is doing embroidery. Their traditional roles are reversed to show quiet contentment, in this glimpse of freedom. Sciamma’s frugal use of music or art makes us crave it more – this is the perfect film to be watching during the tired monotony of isolation.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to stream on Mubi.com

Image: Paula Sotomayor via Unsplash

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