Sunday, 29 December 2019

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019) - Movie Review

Sometimes, the best pieces of art are the ones that keep things simple. Sure, I take great pleasure in watching and analysing films that have a lot going on, giving me ample opportunities to look at all the little pieces of the production and story and seeing how they all fit together. However, what can easily result from trying to aim for many things at once is missing all of them. Keeping a story’s scope narrower means that the filmmakers are able to focus on a singular notion, building on it so that it supports the entire production all on its own without the added garnish. I don’t usually vibe with films that are this low-key, but then again, not every low-key film I’ve reviewed is as stone-cold brilliant as this little number is.

The story of a love affair between an aristocrat to-be-wed and a painter commissioned to paint her wedding portrait, played by Adéle Haenel and Noémie Merlant respectively, this has to be one of the finest romantic couplings I’ve ever covered on here. Almost scorching the frame with all the sexual tension on-screen, Haenel and Merlant’s slow and steady lover’s progression is kind of shocking in how natural it comes across. It’s remarkably devoid of the typically melodramatic touches I’ve come to expect from more prestige romance cinema, and considering this is a French lesbian love story, it’s also refreshingly tasteful. There’s none of Blue Is The Warmest Colour’s perversity to be found here.

And yet, on that same point, they end up sharing the same approach in capturing their respective romances: Filming the human body as a work of art. However, where Blue wound up abandoning character sentience for the sake of titillation in that attempt, this film is wholly about art as metaphor for love. The way that the titular portraiture is depicted, through Merlant’s attentive eye and Hélène Delmaire’s beautiful IRL artwork, is the act of re-creating how a given subject is ‘seen’. As in establishing a connection between observer and subject where one is able to see the other for who and what they really are. Everything from the placement of the hands to the detailing of light textures, right up to the facial expressions, is used to quite literally illustrate the progression of their romance, their deepening connection to each other, and ultimately why the romance turns out the way it does.

Even outside of the film’s own framing, this aspect of artistic re-creation isn’t something that gets that much textual consideration. This manner of direct connection between the two, the subject and the artist, is one that requires a huge amount of trust in being able to recreate the person’s… well, soul, for lack of a better word. And it’s a trust that Haenel’s Héloïse has had trouble giving in the past, as shown with the mentions of past painters who were unsuccessful in capturing her image. And while part of that is the notion of trust, there’s also what the completion of the painting ultimately means: Her being thrust into a pre-ordained relationship that, from all appearances, she would do only because culture deems that she must. Being put into an arranged marriage without having experienced actual love first… yeah, no wonder she rejects it.

Through that lens, with plentiful references to classic art and the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, the film’s examination of love both as memory and as momentary action makes for surprisingly enthralling viewing. I say surprisingly because, ostensibly, there’s not a lot going on beyond the budding relationship between Héloïse and Merlant’s Marianne, save for the occasional interjection of Luàna Bajrami’s maid Sophie who ends up adding to the film’s points regarding what is lost without the female perspective in art.

But in that seeming quiet, there is a raging fire burning at the film’s core, one that visually and textually articulates love in such a fucking heart-wrenching way that it’s an easy contender for best queer romance of the decade. It may not be as close to my heart as something like Call Me ByYour Name, which honestly served as a major paradigm shift for my own understanding of love beyond the screen, but it’s really damn close.

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