Monday, March 9, 2020

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire derives from a whole tradition of French films of sensibility, of which Eric Rohmer was the maestro. These are essentially long discussions together with "explications de texte" (the Orpheus myth comes under particular scrutiny with regard to the gaze, which is one of Sciamma's leitmotifs). Marianne (Noemie Merlant) the central figure is a painter commissioned to produce a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), an aristocrat with a mother (Valeria Golino) right out of Les Liaison Dangereuses and the world of 18th century manners and morals. The portrait is a form of offering to an Italian suitor to whom Heloise’s deceased sister was once betrothed. Yes there are no major male characters in the movie. Bravo! Yet the eminence grise, the suitor, is a man. The deeper subject is who is looking at whom and in this case the conversations go on and on before the inevitable happens and the two women fall into each other's arms. "I didn't know you were an art critic," Marianne says to which Heloise responds, "I didn't know you were a painter." Is it the painter or her subject who's the centerpiece of the artist project? The last scene of the film in which Marianne spots Heloise at a concert is so ridiculously inflated, it retrospectively irradiates the preceding narrative with an ineradicable nimbus of sententiousness. This is the world of long meaningful stares and glances and while some are earned in the service of themes of art and life, the preponderance of afflatus undermines any residue of believability. There is, in fact, one unwanted pregnancy in the film, but a surfeit of pregnant looks. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also exceedingly long. Bloviation is the director's style. When Marianne eyes light on Heloise, chest heaving and eyes filled with tears (in that final scene), for yet one more last time, you find yourself hoping that there aren’t any epilogues.

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