Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

aka Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

2019 #137
Céline Sciamma | 122 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 15 / R

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Now, here’s a film I really need to see again. Not to affirm whether I liked it or not — in fact, I loved it; enough to rank it the #1 film I saw in 2019 — but to fully assess and analyse and process it. This admission is not the best way to begin a review — reviews are meant to be assessment and/or analysis, after all — but, nonetheless, it indicates the kind of effect I felt from the film.

What is that effect? In my best-of-year piece I said it was “the kind of film that casts a spell”, by which I’m referring to how it sweeps you in; how it engages you in such a way that you’re just experiencing it, almost with analytical functions switched off; or if not “switched off”, turned down low enough so as not to be a distraction. Maybe this is how ‘normal people’ see all films, but as someone who actively studied cinema for six years and has spent nearly a decade-and-a-half reviewing every new thing he sees, it’s rare to find something so engrossing that the mental deconstruction while viewing stops almost entirely. That — in its own, somewhat ephemeral way — is as good a testament to the film’s power and quality as any.

Of course, to say it turned off my analytical brain entirely is not completely truthful — this is a long way from a Michael Bay-esque “leave your brain at the door” kind of entertainment. What I mean, I suppose, is that I was engaged more purely by the characters and their story, rather than becoming distracted by pondering the filmmaking choices or structural decisions or acting ability or what have you. (The difference here is perhaps a fine line to quantify, I grant you. If you’ve ever studied film in an academic context, I hope you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, I’ve done my best to convey some of the difference.) In this instance, I’m thinking specifically of the film’s leanings towards a sense of Gothic. This element isn’t overt — as it is in, say, Crimson Peak — but it is there, and so my analytical brain was ‘on’ enough to spot that and think it through. while watching. I mean, I’m not claiming that I’m some genius for getting it — there’s a bloody great apparition that’s presented like a key to unlock this facet of the film — but, even with that pointer in hand, it’s not an out-and-out traditionally Gothic tale.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

Here I’m not talking about Hammer-like ‘Gothic horror’ but ‘Gothic Romance’ (see my Crimson Peak review if you need a refresher on the difference), and ‘romance’ is an even more operative word for Portrait of a Lady on Fire as it’s about two women who realise they’re in love. That realisation takes a while to manifest, so if you’re a total spoilerphobe then you might argue I’ve just ‘ruined’ the movie; but eh, it’s kind of the point (just look at all the publicity materials!) Much has been made of the fact that it’s a lesbian love story told with the female gaze, as writer-director Céline Sciamma is, indeed, a woman. This is not an insignificant factor, but also not one I feel massively qualified to discuss in depth. I do think the way the relationship is handled and depicted comes with a different perspective than you’d expect if there was a man in the director’s chair, though. It’s not so simplistic as the attitude to sex and nudity, though that is part of it (such scenes are not shot with the same lasciviousness you might expect from a male hand on the tiller) — it’s the overall attitude and focus. Plus subplots, including a significant one with a maid, the delve into Women’s Issues with a level of understanding that, again, might be different under a male director.

The notes I made for myself when I saw the film back in November are frustratingly brief. They include “the music!” and “the sound!”, so let’s take a moment to acknowledge that they are clearly striking elements, while also damning my memory for embarrassing me by not remembering many specifics. That said, the film’s use of music is deliberately sparse, for reasons connected to the story, and so when it is used it’s all the more effective. For some reason my notes don’t mention the cinematography, but maybe I thought that went without saying. It looks gorgeous, with cinematographer Claire Mathon enacting a painterly regard for composition and colour that is wholly appropriate. The rest of my notes conclude with a request: “all the awards for Adèle Haenel please”. Which is to do no disservice to her co-star Noémie Merlant — the film is about their relationship, and so its quality rests on both their shoulders — but in some respects Haenel has the more obvious journey and change.

This girl is on fire

The story comes to a head in a moment near the end which made me well up inside. It’s a visual clue that I spotted just ahead of most of the audience I saw it with — I don’t wish to sound boastful here, because I certainly wasn’t the only one even just in that room to spot it ‘early’, but it meant I could also enjoy the audible gasps when the remainder saw it a moment later. My point being: it’s the kind of moment that can provoke an involuntary vocalisation of surprise and delight, and it’s not just me it worked for that way.

I appreciate that this is another vague kind of appraisal. I feel like I want to abandon a lot of this review and just scream “see it, then you’ll know everything I want to say and everything I feel!” But, of course, art and criticism don’t work like that. You won’t experience the film the exact same way I did, even if I could tell you exactly what I experienced and thereby influence your own experience. And there are even people who dislike this movie, which couldn’t be more opposite to my experience (one of the specific criticisms I’ve seen is that it’s slow, and while it’s true that it moves at a very particular pace, I thought it was just right). But, in the end, that is what this review is for: to urge you to see it, because it is a beautiful, absorbing, moving piece of art.

5 out of 5

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

It placed 1st on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.