Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
February 10, 2020 1:18 AM - Subscribe

On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.

Isabel Stevens (Sight & Sound): Céline Sciamma conjures an oasis of female freedom.

Tomris Laffly (Roger Ebert): Sciamma’s gift to 2019 sets a highest standard for any romance that will come after it.

Tim Brayton (Alternate Ending): It's an exhausting film, and it gets more exhausting still as it barrels towards the ending (the last ten minutes, and the last shot in particular, basically dare you not to breathe or blink), but this is what makes it a great love story. It's not meant to be mild and pleasant; it's meant to feel like flying and drowning simultaneously.

Scott Mantz sits down with writer-director Céline Sciamma and stars Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel to discuss their film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

posted by sapagan (23 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
this is a masterpiece. that's the review i'm capable of right now. perhaps later, when it's settled a bit, i'll say more.
posted by sapagan at 1:21 AM on February 10, 2020 [3 favorites]


I watch a lot of movies at home during awards season and I confess my attention occasionally strays to my phone (ahem The Irishman). But I couldn't take my eyes off this from the very start. Absolutely mysterious and gripping and intense throughout, and then the ending. The ending! My god.

Can't wait to see this again at the cinema. What a shame it wasn't up for more awards.
posted by adrianhon at 6:56 AM on February 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Really want to see this and it still hasn't opened in the US.
posted by octothorpe at 8:17 AM on February 10, 2020

I thought this was totally riveting. Loved it, highly recommended.

There’s a moment late in the film where a man shows up, shattering the isolation of the main characters, and the main character is shocked, and I the viewer was taken aback too — I am not sure any film had ever made me feel that before, shock and dismay to see a man onscreen.

The art in the film is incredible, but I’m not sure it’s as provocative and interesting as the plot would have you believe. But I think that’s a common pitfall of any movie about making art.
posted by Rinku at 6:12 AM on February 11, 2020 [10 favorites]

Fantastic film. So sad. Just terriffic.

I really loved seeing the art being made. I did find it just mildly distracting that the art lacked the finish that one would conventionally associate with contemporary portraiture of the era, which would more commonly place the figure in front of a landscape vista, often also against a domestic element such as a drape, situating the location of the sitter within or near to a building. The other missing element in the finish is the more-customary fineness of detail in and on the features of the face, which more typically would have been executed to finish with very fine brushstrokes.

The film used a get-it-done-now plot device to at least partially account for this, so honestly, it’s a minor quibble. Every time they showed paint being laid down, it reminded me of how much I miss painting.
posted by mwhybark at 12:36 PM on February 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sapagan, thank you for linking that Vice article! I love that all of the hands we saw painting and drawing were the hands of the actual artist.
posted by redsparkler at 12:33 PM on February 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wow. I was enthralled. I believe this is the most gorgeous film I've ever experienced. Several shots are like classical works in motion.

The romance is powerful and true.

A magical sexual metaphor: a plant that makes you fly, and time slow down.

I'm an art dilettante for sure, but I've lingered - entranced - in front of great works at the Louvre and the Prado.

Seeing this felt similar. It's a great work.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:56 AM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

This was so good - a sparkling gem of filmmaking, acting and story. I was a bit taken aback at the "it was exhausting" take in one of the reviews linked above, which I completely disagree with, and was glad to see the review itself focuses on what's so completely engaging, heart-achingly beautiful and just plain *perfect* about the film. Not sure where "exhausting" comes in.

I say this a lot, but if folks who loved Portrait haven't yet seen Sciamma's 2011 film Tomboy, you're in for bonus treat. It's another gorgeously shot and acted look at a fascinating character, in this case a genderqueer 10-year-old girl/boy. Hitchcockian suspense is not something you expect in a film about a 10-year-old but the film delivers that, and more.
posted by mediareport at 5:48 AM on March 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Just saw it. That was fantastic.

And I cannot express how much I have been longing for films that are NOT AFRAID OF SILENCE.
posted by kyrademon at 3:25 PM on March 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

This movie was just fantastic.

One thing I was interested by was that even though they were as intimate as two people can be in some ways, as near as I can tell Héloïse and Marianne never once tutoyered each other.
posted by solotoro at 1:05 PM on March 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think that Alison Bechdel would give this one the nod. There is the guy who turn up to box the painting - and the chap who looks like Poldark on the boat at the start - that's it.

Film makers often don't represent the art of painting very well. It would have been quite easy for Sciamma to have made a romance with the same plot line - but where elements such the way a sketch is done to gauge proportion or the way a brush stroke is applied - were lost. Also, of course, the need for painters to really look at their subjects. I would recommend What Portrait of a Lady on Fire Tells Us About "the Gaze"

A shout out, finally to Hélène Delmaire whose paintings were used in the film. It seems like here particular style was used not just to provide visual material - but also to structure the story.
posted by rongorongo at 12:54 AM on March 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

If anybody else is interested in 2 other great French takes on the Orpheus and Eurydice story - then I 'd recommend both Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus" and Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus.
posted by rongorongo at 1:17 AM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

riveting, wonderful
posted by growabrain at 12:54 AM on March 30, 2020

Every shot in the whole damn movie is like a painting. Absolutely gorgeous. What a fucking shame this didn't get the wide theatrical release it deserved given coronavirus. But I feel very lucky it's on Hulu.

Hélène Delmaire, The Artist Behind the Paintings At the Heart of "Portrait of a Lady On Fire"
posted by sapagan at 12:39 AM on February 11 [2 favorites +] [!]

Thanks for this! I was super curious about how they did the shots of art making.
posted by latkes at 11:13 AM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Breathtaking in every sense. One of the most visually stunning, beautiful films I've ever seen. I hope they re-release it so I can see it on a big screen.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:19 PM on April 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was a bit taken aback at the "it was exhausting" take in one of the reviews linked above, which I completely disagree with, and was glad to see the review itself focuses on what's so completely engaging, heart-achingly beautiful and just plain *perfect* about the film. Not sure where "exhausting" comes in.

Strong agree! Honestly I'm relieved by how not exhausting it is. I typically find period films to be kind of stressful. (In fairness to Mr Exhausting: the film is so quiet and intent that it does draw you in, to the point where I found myself focusing a lot harder on the screen than normal. But for me that's immersive, not exhausting.) Portrait is a really interesting glimpse at the relative freedoms and restrictions these three women might plausibly have in their time period. I love that Heloise points out that her life at the convent was pretty good, actually. What a sucker punch it is when a man shows up and the end and you finally, really know that it's over! And what a relief that it doesn't end with Heloise and Marianne drowning themselves in the Atlantic.
posted by grandiloquiet at 10:51 AM on May 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Finally got to see this, and echoing the comments above. One thing that struck me about the painting was how Dalmaire's hands became actors in their own right - the way they would hesitate, hovering over the canvas or paper, approaching first one way, then another, until finally lighting to add one particular stroke. It felt like a reflection of how Marianne was trying to figure Heloise out, getting closer and closer to her subject, and I was fascinated, even though I know nothing about painting and couldn't follow the actual techniques at all.
posted by Mogur at 9:43 AM on August 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Also, quietly cried through the last ten minutes and for several minutes afterwards, and that *never* happens with me and movies.
posted by Mogur at 9:46 AM on August 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

I liked this. It's a powerful and authentic movie, executed so well. Moment to moment it felt precise and human and true but also a little poetic, but all in a good way. It's not exactly very deep though... afterwards it felt a little bit like a very excellent memorable trifle.

Just looking at the imdb entry for it again seeing a still of the scene on the cliff.. That moment in the movie was so great, when M is trying to stare at H without getting caught, and the last time she tries she finds H was already staring at her. So great!

Really good casting and acting. The film begs you to look at faces and see things and the actors deliver so well.

I like that it does not linger on the pain and agony and knife-twisting of a doomed romance. These characters are not left destroyed and bereft, not entirely. To me it's not really like an exploration of the issues, I thought, but it was simply allowing this forbidden love to bloom and be pure and bright and poetically satisfying... let it participate in the happy beautiful lies of poetry, for all the good and bad that they are.
posted by fleacircus at 11:49 PM on July 29, 2021

Since fleacircus brought this back to recent activity, I thought I'd mention something about the ending that might be a bit relevant to why it played out as it did, holding on the shot of Héloïse in her box at the opera for such an exceptionally long time.

There is something of a minor genre of painting from the late 19th century centered around attending an opera or other public space, generally focused on a woman watching the opera as we the viewer look at her. There is a level of play involved around the idea of exhibition and femininity and the ownership of the "look" that featured as a important emphasis in some vital feminist criticism of art history and "the male gaze". Here's a brief excerpt from one such piece by the feminist art critic Griselda Pollock that proved to be a touchstone for many other essays on the concepts for the last thirty or so years.

The mark of difference between the paintings by Renoir and Cassatt is the refusal in the latter of that complicity in the way the female protagonist is depicted. In a later painting, At the Opera, 1879, a woman is represented dressed in daytime or mourning black in a box at the theatre. She looks from the spectator into the distance in a direction which cuts across the plane of the picture but as the viewer follows her gaze another look is revealed steadfastly fixed on the woman in the foreground. The picture thus juxtaposes two looks, giving priority to that of the woman who is, remarkably, pictured actively looking. She does not return the viewer's gaze, a convention which confirms the viewer's right to look and appraise. Instead we find that the viewer outside the picture is evoked by being as it were the mirror image of the man looking in the picture.

This is, in a sense, the subject of the painting --the problematic of /p. 76: women out in public being vulnerable to a compromising gaze. The witty pun on the spectator outside the painting being matched by that within should not disguise the serious meaning of the fact that social spaces are policed by men's watching women and the positioning of the spectator outside the painting in relation to the man within it serves to indicate that the spectator participates in that game as well. The fact that the woman is pictured so actively looking, signified above all by the fact that her eyes are masked by opera glasses, prevents her being objectified and she figures as the subject of her own look.

Cassatt and Morisot painted pictures of women in public spaces but these all lie above a certain line on the grid I devised from Baudelaire's text. The other world of women was inaccessible to them while it was freely available to the men of the group and constantly entering /p. 78: representation as the very territory of their engagement with modernity. There is evidence that bourgeois women did no to the cafés-concerts but this is reported as a fact to regret and a symptom of modern decline....

To enter such spaces as the masked ball or the café-concert constituted a serious threat to a bourgeois woman's reputation and therefore her femininity. The guarded respectability of the lady could be soiled by mere visual contact for seeing was bound up with knowing. This other world of encounter between bourgeois men and women of another class was a no-go area for bourgeois women. It is the place where female sexuality or rather female bodies are bought and sold, where woman becomes both an exchangeable commodity and a seller of flesh, entering the economic domain through her direct exchanges with men. Here the division of the public and private mapped as a separation of the masculine and feminine is ruptured by money, the ruler of the public domain, and precisely what is banished from the home.

Femininity in its class-specific forms is maintained by the polarity virgin/whore which is mystifying representation of the economic exchanges in the patriarchal kinship system. In bourgeois ideologies of femininity the fact of the money and property relations which legally and economically constitute bourgeois marriage is conjured out of sight by the mystification of a one-off purchase of the rights to a body and its products as an effect of love to be sustained by duty and devotion.

Femininity should be understood therefore not as a condition of women but as the ideological form of the regulation of female sexuality within a familial, heterosexual domesticity which is ultimately organized by law. The spaces of femininity --ideologically, pictorially-- hardly articulate female sexualities. This is not to accept nineteenth-century notions of women's asexuality but to stress the difference between what was actually lived or how it was experienced and what was officially spoken or represented as female sexuality.

Here's the Cassatt painting Pollock is talking about, and here's one of the Renoirs.
The full essay.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire may not be referencing that specific essay, but the ending appears to me to be decidedly emphasizing the act of looking in how long it holds the shot of Héloïse and how it makes her emotions a site of spectacle of a sort becoming both uncomfortably intimate in its appraisal of her reaction in the way the film demands we to attend to it while also calling attention to the divides that Marianne is subject to both personally and professionally as a lover wishing to reach out but cannot because of societal prohibitions and a painter who is charged with capturing the subject for spectators to take as their own.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:12 AM on July 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

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