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Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Posted February 23, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Disney is on top of the world right now. Yes, that has a lot to do with their own savvy business decisions and rock-solid franchises, though it certainly helps that their competition has been flagging in a huge way. WB still hasn’t fully recovered from the one-two punch of Batman v Superman and Justice League, though at least they’re still doing better than the post-Mummy Universal. Sony put so much money and effort into keeping some hold of their Spider-Man licenses that the studio might as well be owned by Disney/Marvel at this point. I’ve already written at great length about Paramount and their woes. MGM has long since been sold off for parts, and of course 20th Century Fox went bankrupt.

Even a decade ago, it seemed that this corporate oligopoly was unassailable. But after so many big studios lost so much money on so many failed billion-dollar franchise gambles, a surprising thing happened: Slowly but surely, many smaller studios found room to grow. And by now, some have grown big enough to rival even the likes of Disney and Viacom.

The obvious examples are Netflix and Amazon, each of whom now has a war chest and brand recognition to stand among the biggest media conglomerates on the planet. Hell, the both of them were such pioneers in the field of online streaming, it sent the other studios scrambling to make their own streaming platforms to try and catch up!

Then we have Lionsgate, a company that’s been around for decades, quietly building themselves up into a major Hollywood player. There aren’t many studios outside of the Big Five who could sink so much money into such a massive box office failure as Power Rangers (2017) without going bankrupt or losing face, but Lionsgate did it. And they’ve still got the John Wick franchise, the upcoming Knives Out sequel, and their Roadside Attractions indie empire to fall back on.

Another one to look out for is STX Films, the studio that brought us… well, The Happytime Murders. Also Peppermint, I Feel Pretty, The Playmobil Movie… Ooh, they made Hustlers, that was a good one!

Fitting for a Chinese-owned company, STX is clearly more concerned with quantity than quality. They had eight movies released last year, they’ve already released two movies in the past couple of months, at least three more are on the way for release this year, and their advertising is quite notably aggressive. They’re building up to something big, just wait for it.

And then we have the new kids on the block: Neon. This studio has only been in business since 2017, but sweet mercy, what a great few years they’ve had, releasing some of the best, boldest, and highest-profile arthouse films in recent memory. Colossal. Ingrid Goes West. I, Tonya. Three Identical Strangers. Assassination Nation. Vox Lux. The Beach Bum. Little Woods. Honeyland. And of course the crown jewel: Parasite, a film that came out to such massive critical and commercial acclaim that it went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

And now, while Parasite is still on its victory lap through theaters nationwide, Neon has come back with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a female-driven period drama out of France.

The eponymous lady is Heloise, played by Adele Haenel. She’s been studying in a convent for the past few years, released home after her sister died of an apparent suicide. In a couple of weeks, she’ll be sent off to Milan for an arranged marriage to a man she’s never met. While it is of course customary for an aristocratic man to be presented with a portrait of his betrothed, Heloise (for obvious reasons) is in a painfully melancholy mood and will not tolerate sitting for a portrait session with anyone. Just getting her to smile is hard enough.

Enter Marianne, played by Noemie Merlant. She has been hired by Heloise’s mother (the anonymous Countess, played by Valeria Golino) to accompany Heloise for long outdoor walks, the better to help cheer the girl up and keep her from self-harm. In addition, Marianne is a talented young painter secretly hired to study Heloise’s face and paint the portrait from memory, without Heloise herself ever sitting to pose or even knowing that the painting is underway.

Things heat up when the Countess goes away on business for a week or so. Thus Heloise and Marianne are left alone in the house, with only the housemaid (Sophie, played by Luana Bajrami) for company.

I’ll be honest, this one had me stumped for a while.

To be clear, I was perfectly impressed with the cast. The chemistry between Merlant and Haenel was more than powerful enough to hold my attention, and Bajrami is no slouch, either. It certainly helps that the filmmakers aren’t afraid to take their time in developing the central relationship, letting Heloise and Marianne get to know and trust each other as friends before they commit to each other as lovers. They don’t even make any firm romantic moves until well over halfway in, and I was rooting for them hard by that point.

I should add that though we do get a fair share of nudity (tame by French standards, I expect), all the actual sex is kept offscreen. (Blue is the Warmest Color, this ain’t.) But what we do get is a close-up shot so extreme that we can see the threads of saliva hanging between their lips. And somehow, that’s even more intimate.

I must tip my hat to writer/director Celine Sciamma for crafting some of the most striking shots and gut-punching close-ups I’ve seen in recent memory. A favorite example comes early on, when Marianne is freshly arrived and dries herself off from the boat ride. There’s a shot of her sitting on the floor, nude in profile, silhouetted against the fireplace, smoking a pipe. It’s a deeply striking visual.

Then we have the very last shot of the movie: Two solid minutes of an unbroken shot in extreme close-up, watching a character react to an orchestra performance. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but everything we know about this particular character, this particular symphony, and everything else about the context brings layers and layers of meaning to every last microscopic reaction in that close-up. It’s spellbinding and heartbreaking all at once.

Still, all of this speaks to the presentation. What’s there under the surface? Well… that takes a while to get to.

Through most of the movie, there isn’t much here in the way of stakes. There’s nothing here more imperative than the completion of a portrait, and no greater question than whether Heloise or Marianne will get together. Most of the film is preoccupied with Heloise moving past her ennui, as she and Marianne get to know each other so well that they can more or less communicate nonverbally.

Also, there’s an abortion subplot. Yes, seriously.

But then the third act comes, and a strange thing happens. See, pretty much the entire cast in this show is female. From the prologue onwards, everyone in the film down to the last background player is a woman. It’s just something I got used to, without even knowing it.

Then the climax comes, and we see a man sitting at the dinner table. Like nothing’s wrong. It feels like an invasion of some kind. And just like that, something’s changed, because we’ve been forcibly reminded that this was always a temporary arrangement.

There’s a moment earlier on, when Marianne equates liberty with isolation. It’s a throwaway line in the moment, but it comes into sharp focus with the realization that our three primary women were free to do whatever they wanted while the outside world and all its rules were somewhere else. This was always a movie about class disparity and the patriarchy of the status quo, and it made those artistic statements by forcing their absence through most of the screen time. Remarkably done.

From start to finish, the antagonist was always time. It was never about completing the portrait within the week, it was always about whether Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie could make the most of the week before it inevitably ends and they all go their separate ways. More than anything else, this is ultimately a movie about nostalgia, the old friends we miss without even knowing it, and the good times we might’ve appreciated so much more if we remembered they wouldn’t last.

For those who’ve seen Y tu Mama Tabien, the ending to that movie hit me in much the same way.

Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention everything in here about the redemptive power of art. There’s painting, obviously, but the characters eventually find all sorts of new meanings and applications for painting, other than just portraits. Stories play a role, most especially as the characters find a deeply moving interpretation of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth. Music and dancing are indispensable in Heloise’s rediscovery of life. And while games as an art form is rather debatable, there’s a card game that turns out to be deceptively important in bringing our three main characters together.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very, very French. It’s slow, it’s contemplative, and it takes a long time for the film to make its point clear. That said, the slower burn means that the characters develop in a more natural way, and the artistic statements hit so much harder when they finally come. I loved spending time with these characters, their chemistry was sizzling from start to finish, and did I mention that the camerawork is stunning?

I have no problem giving this one a full recommendation, especially since — let’s be honest — the new wide releases have been kinda shit these past couple of weeks. This is a fine time to pay a visit to your local arthouse, and this is definitely one to look out for. If you’ve got the patience for it, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful, sweet, intimate little romantic drama.