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Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019)

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

By: Azadeh Jafari

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the story of a passionate but brief love affair between two young women living in the 18th century France. The fleeting moments are recalled by Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who was commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the daughter of a countess. Living most of her life in a convent, Heloise detests the idea of an arranged marriage and refuses to have her portrait painted by any painter. That is why the countess persuades Marianne to paint her daughter secretly as disguising as her lady companion. Through the act of looking and the artistic creation, the girls fall in love. It is an interesting even a daring decision that ‘the look’ belongs to two women and not to the male artist as usual.

Apart from the love between two women, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has some intriguing feminist themes. The film is built around four female characters without the introduction or intervention of any male character. The men remain outside of the frame but their presence affects the women’s life. Later when the countess leaves her abandoned sparse manor, some kind of sisterhood is formed among the young girls in spite of their social class. Marianne, Héloïse and the maid named Sophie enjoy their freedom by reading, cooking and playing together. And when Sophie reveals her pregnancy, the other girls calmly accompany her to get an abortion. Siamma depicts abortion as a painful but undebatable decision. Siamma also refers to Orpheus and Eurydice tale to make an analogy between the mythical lovers and our heroines. In Héloïse’s interpretation, Eurydice herself asks Orpheus to look back before reaching the Upper World. So, Eurydice is not the passive wife anymore but an active force.

Siamma is a skilled filmmaker and her last film is full of beautiful images and eye-catching compositions. The figure of two beautiful women walking next to the vast blue sea or running in the wind, is unforgettable and powerful. However, these meticulously composed decorations cannot turn into complicated multi-layered images. The camera cannot capture the tension of life or the passion of love. The editing is conventional. For example, the first time they came back from the beach, the camera follows Héloïse closely as she climbs the stairs, as if it is placed in Marianne’s eyes. We see the back of Héloïse’s head and her ears, as Marianne’s monologue is heard! This scene is very impressive but Siamma cuts to Marianne’s close-up and breaks her gaze, though we still hear her voice-over. The new shot is not even organized from Heloise’s point of view. The power of looking, dreaming, and imagination is shattered in this scene. It seems that the filmmaker tries to show everything and talk about every feeling through blunt sometimes boring dialogues.

Moreover, the characters are quite empty, they are not complicated humans with their own weaknesses. We don’t know anything about Héloïse’s sister or the effect her suicide left on others. Marianne’s relationship with her father is never discussed. And Sophie’s feelings before and after abortion seem unimportant. Everything is meticulously designed and controlled and life itself is lost. In this over-calculation, the image of Héloïse in her white wedding gown cannot evoke Eurydice in a haunting or ethereal way.

Considering all that, a scene still lingers in my mind. Out at night, Héloïse and Marianne calmly look at each other, the women villagers are singing a folk song while the actresses reveal their inner love and anguish in the darkness. It is a dreamlike exchange, a bewitching amalgam of sound and image. The ladies are on fire!


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