Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an intimidating movie to write about, because I find myself both endlessly impressed with its craft and somewhat baffled by its ecstatic critical reception. Portrait is a visually gorgeous but patiently observant film about a short-term queer romance in 18th Century France. Its gradual accumulation of small glances, electric touches, and guarded desire snowball to an avalanche of emotion in its final act that is so self-evidently magnificent that calling its merits & accolades into question feels like cinephilic blasphemy. Yet, it’s also an overwhelmingly quiet film in its earliest stirrings, soundtracked mostly by crackling fireplaces, hushed wave-crests, and charcoal scraping canvas. Without a guiding score to anchor my attention in its pensive build-up, I found my mind wandering outside the emotions of the conflict onscreen to instead consider the film’s significance in the mighty catalog of its director, Céline Sciamma. That strained attention span is admittedly more of an intellectual shortcoming on my part than any fault of the movie’s, but it did lead me to wonder: Why, exactly, is this the film from Sciamma that pro critics are deliriously gaga over, as opposed to her previous, equally stunning works? Basically, “Why y’all gagging so? She brings it to you every ball.”
The only other time I can recall stumbling over this exact internal conflict is with the films of New Queer Cinema poster boy Todd Haynes. While Haynes’s most idiosyncratic, structurally adventurous works like Velvet Goldmine & Wonderstruck tend to be flagged as uneven or “messy,” his traditionalist costume dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven are collectively exulted as his masterworks. I very much admire both of those films, if not only for their exquisite sense of visual craft and their detailed attention to quietly, bodily expressed desire under social policing. However, I would never guess that Todd Haynes in particular had made either film if his name wasn’t included in the credits, as they’ve been stripped of the idiosyncratic playfulness that distinguish his most personally identifiable works. Céline Sciamma’s personal stamp is similarly obscured in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, at least in terms of how her filmography has played out so far. Her masterful deployment of diegetic music and her fixation on themes of queer & gendered self-discovery certainly carry over here, but removing those touches from her usual modern settings to the more stately stage of a period drama somewhat dilutes what makes her distinct as a storyteller. Like with Haynes’s most critically lauded works, I’m not sure that she’d be the first director whose name I’d guess were attached to the film if it were obscured in the credits. That’s not even something I hold against Sciamma or the film itself, really; I’m happy to see the director emboldened to reach past her usual boundaries to explore new territory. I’m just a little skeptical of why this is the film that’s being singled out as the pinnacle of her catalog, as opposed the equally stunning, modernist teen dramas Water Lilies or Girlhood. It’s as if the film’s period setting & hushed tones are somehow automatically more Prestigious than films that feature Rihanna dance parties or trips to McDonalds. That’s bullshit.
It might just be that Portrait of a Lady on Fire leaves the strongest impression since it ends on its highest notes, entirely by design (whereas Girlhood somewhat unravels in its epilogue and Water Lilies & Tomboy both go gentle into that good night). In the film, a young painter is hired to secretly produce a portrait of a French heiress who is arranged to marry a noble Milanese stranger against her wishes. Posing as the subject’s hired companion, the artist closely studies her for hours as they socialize, memorizing her ever feature to later reproduce on canvas in private. The border between artistic study & romantic fixation gradually blurs as the two women’s companionship naturally evolves into an outright torrid affair. By the time they realize their growing love & sexual attraction for one another is mutual (or at least by the time they’re both brave enough to act on it) there’s a rapidly approaching expiration date on their time together, and so much lost time to make up for. Suddenly, the practiced restraint & quiet observations of the opening half of the film give way to a rush of overwhelming emotion as the two women cram the entire arc of a fulfilling romance into only a week’s time. Meanwhile, the guise of their artist-subject dynamic affords them a brief respite from the societal demands & economic exploitations of marriage & the world of men. They manage to carve out a perfectly functional femme community outside the restrictions of their typical daily lives. The tragedy of the film is just as much rooted in the impermanence of that femmetopia as it is in the inevitable dissolution of their tryst.
It’s exciting to watch the carefully planted seeds from the film’s quieter half bloom wildly in its explosively passionate conclusion – especially as its spooky Gothic literature & Greek myth allusions fully materialize in the narrative. Before that delayed payoff fully leaves its mark, however, I mostly found myself drawing comparisons between Portrait’s basic elements and similar triumphs in Sciamma’s earlier works. There’s a communal, witchy chanting scene around a beachside bonfire that directly recalls similar dance party tangents in each of Sciamma’s’ previous features, best exemplified by the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood. Similarly, the stoic, unreadable expression of actor Adèle Haenel as the titular portrait subject is true to the quietly observant figures of Sciamma’s’ previous work, including Haenel herself as a teenager in Water Lilies. Usually, Sciamma’s stories of queer and fluidly gendered self-discovery are staged among children on the verge of teenhood. Here, that theme is echoed in how Adele’s adult bride-to-be has been “sheltered” (read: imprisoned) from the world outside her home because of her gender, to the point where she’s been robbed of the adult development appropriate for her age. She knows no more of her body or her sexuality at the film’s start than the preteen children of Tomboy or Water Lilies, and part of her initial attraction to her painter/lover is their usefulness as a window to the world outside her enclave. This film is very much in active conversation with the rest of Sciamma’s portfolio, but something about its period setting & quiet restraint has earned it more emphatic attention from pro critics. I think that critical impulse is worth questioning even if the film itself is practically unimpeachable.
I want to live in a world where two teenage besties breaking up their BFF status at a McDonalds can be considered just as cinematically Important as an adult woman having her heart broken at an 18th Century orchestral concert. I recognize that some of that craving for modern settings & mood-establishing score is a shortcoming of my own attention span, but I do feel like Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s critical consensus as Sciamma’s masterwork is somewhat arbitrary. She’s been making excellent movies that hit the same emotional highs (earlier & more often in the case of Girlhood & Water Lilies) for over a decade now. They just happened to be couched in a tone & context that aren’t afforded the same breathless critical gushing. Better late the never, I suppose. Céline Sciamma has delivered yet another exceptional work of queer romance & self-discovery here, one that’s now dressed up in the stately finery of what we’ve agreed to consider Great Art.