Sunday, October 6, 2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

One can never really know what goes on in someone's mind from first impressions. There are those whose personality remains impenetrable after knowing them for years and there are those who become an open book after spending very little time with them. But what group do you want someone to fall into?

This is something that Marianne (Noémie Merlant) encounters initially in Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Commissioned to discretely paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), she finds her subject aloof. But as more time passes between the two women, something deeper grows between them.

In contrast to other lesbian-themed films from recent years (Blue is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden, Disobedience), Portrait of a Lady on Fire is decidedly much better in depicting such relationships. The earlier films were adapted by straight men, the resulting sex scenes looking more like they were inspired by porn than the female-penned works they're based on. Meanwhile, Sciamma -- who was once romantically involved with Haenel -- prefers more of the sensuality from parting glances and brushes of fingers that her male contemporaries tend to eschew, something that directors like Dee Rees and Donna Deitch featured in their respective sapphic showpieces as well. (A good example of this is in a scene where Marianne and Héloïse point out the other's tics.)

Sciamma also plays with the use of color in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Like the Technicolor-drenched films of Powell and Pressburger, she and cinematographer Claire Mathon toy with various contrasts such as the broad colors of Marianne and Héloïse's dresses against the pale walls of the home or silhouettes against the dusk sky. (There's another striking example best left for one to see themselves.)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire continues Sciamma's streak as a director. As she did with her earlier films, it maintains a nuance to its storytelling, not needing those big blow-out moments. And just a warning: the last scene will destroy you.

My Rating: *****

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