Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2020)

A brushstroke of pathos, romance, and visually-captivating emotion amongst the seaside rocky cliffs of 18th-Century France, Céline Sciamma has delivered powerful Cannes-worthy masterpiece – and the most breathtaking LGBTQ film ever. 9.5/10.

Plot Synopsis: France, 1770. Marianne, a painter, is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left the convent. Héloïse is a reluctant bride to be and Marianne must paint her without her knowing. She observes her by day, to paint her secretly.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Official CLC Review

“In Solitude, I Felt The Liberty You Spoke Of”

A Brushstroke Of Pathos, Forbidden Love, Emotion, Sexuality, & Aristocracy Amidst The 18th Century Seaside Cliffs Of France

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

18th-Century, France: A painter is commissioned to the island of a wealthy aristocratic family to immortalize their youngest daughter in portraiture, only for a forbidden love affair to stoke underneath the surface. The pitch alone is enticing – one that evokes Victorian elegance, Shakespearean romance, and stylistic capability helmed by a celebrated minimalist/indie director: Céline Sciamma. Once it was announced the film would boldly subvert classical romance cinematic-norms by featuring LGBTQ romance as well, the hype skyrocketed as its Festival du Cannes-debut quickly approached. Prestigiously collecting the Prix du Scénario (Best Screenplay), this accoladed arthouse flick astounded audiences and was ready to cross the seas into the lion’s den: other nations historically anti-LGBTQ and singular-minded on what sexuality is, perhaps biggest of all (yet just-so-happening to be the movie capital): Hollywood, U.S.A. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is the proverbial work cinema has been waiting decades for: a showpiece so chord-striking, emotion-saturated, and erotic, it has the potential to set the heart of critics, audiences, naysayers, and even the hateful ablaze with amour fou. A brushstroke of pathos, romance, & visually-captivating emotion amongst the seaside cliffs of 18th-Century France, Céline Sciamma has delivered a powerful Cannes-worthy masterpiece in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire – as well as perhaps the most breathtaking LGBTQ film ever made.

The Sound of Silence

Auterist/Minimalist Brilliance & A Masterpiece Cannes-Worthy Screenplay

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

Most intriguing about POALOF is its departure from classical technique in the fact that it lacks a norm central to filmmaking: an orchestral score. Almost the entirety of the film lacks any sort of soundtrack whatsoever; the film is silent beyond words & diegetic background noise of a crackling fire or waves crashing. This is a bold avant-garde decision by Sciamma and co. that would cripple most filmmakers going against the foundations of textbook-cinema, but one that pays off in spades – giving the film a singularly-unforgettable idiosyncrasy unlike anything I can remember of late. As metaphorically as Héloïse critiques Marianne’s first portrait as too stiff and by-the-book in painting technique/idealism (the film itself poses a smithing critique of closed-mindedness, when there’s a whole spectrum of sexuality beyond convention), POALOF shatters the preconception that there even has to be an orchestra or composer at all. The absence of a soundtrack highlights the film’s screenplay 10x over – making every word, syllable, breath, movement, and detail in the rich/sovereign misé-en-scene shine beyond what’s traditionally noticeable on a first viewing and bestowing a one-of-a-kind elegance. Sciamma’s auterism in reinventing/experimenting with filmmaking-tradition is dazzling, saying more with her pauses and the absence of sound than most directors do with it. The two scenes of the film where music is featured thus strike like lightning by sonic contrast, commanding your full attention with breathtaking sequences in their own right: 1) the haunting & mysterious latin choral chant by the bonfire feeling witchy/supernatural in clap-and-dance 4/4 step & 2) the thunderous aggressions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons’ Presto by a full orchestra in the finale.

Allegory, Vibrancy, & Beach

A Dazzling, Sunlight-Blasted Display of Cinematography by Claire Mathieu

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is one of the most visually-stunning films of 2019. In a year already stacked with masterpiece-level cinematography displays – from the xenophobic daylit Swedish hillsides of Midsommar to turquoise Maldivian seascapes of Self-Discovery For Social Survival to charioscuric black-and-white New England storms of The Lighthouse to masterpiece one-shot wizardry of WWI-film 1917, POALOF shines all its own. Not only does it deliver one of the most gorgeous backdrops of the year in the idyllic, golden-hued, seaswept, rocky-cliff fringed, Van Gogh-esque island straight out the annals of lost Impressionist paintings, but it again utilizes brilliant analogy in its sharp juxtaposition of sun/light-blasted exteriors with dark interiors. This perhaps symbolizes the closet homosexuals have been historically boxed-into by society, wherein they’re prevented from enjoying the same life, liberty, & pursuit of happiness as others in the metaphorical (and physical) light by bigotry omnipresent across most nations & epochs. Beyond the majesty of its setting & bright implications of its allegory, the camerawork and shot construction by cinematographer Claire Mathieu is magnificent. Mathieu utilizes crisp lines, innovative tracking shots, and cleverly-evocative compositions like the mirror-between-the-legs, collarbone/bosom brushstrokes, and graphic match armpit-to-private area shots to incite sexual arousal within the film’s star-crossed romance: Héloïse & Marianne.

A Cinematic Romance For The Ages

The Performances & Sexuality Bursting From Every Chemistry-Rich LGBTQ Frame

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

The performances in POALOF are sensational. Noémie Merlant steals the show in what should easily be the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress at the 92nd Academy Awards. Her saccharine warmth, composed demeanor, elegance, fortitude, & purity of passion make for a screen-emblazoning showcase of feminine power that lights up the canvas. An artist hired for a mysterious job she knows little about but takes to pay the bills in the male-dominated 1700’s-French art-scene, her character is taken on a whirlwind tour of emotion and character development when she meets the mysterious maiden of this rocky peak: Adèle Haenel’s gentle, haunted, torn-between-freedom-and-convention Héloïse. Their undeniable chemistry bursts from every frame of this passionate, cheek-flushing, butterfly-airy journey – one of the best & most thorough love stories of the decade. A Shakespearean tale of forbidden, fleeting l’amour, POALOF tells an amazing tale of two star-crossed souls who fought against fate & crossed through metaphorical (and physical) fire to meet, the result being even more impressive by the fact that we’ve never seen LGBTQ romance on-screen like this. POALOF doubles as one of the sexiest films of All-Time, stoking hot-and-heavy arousal near-constantly – but in such a skillful manner, it not once borders into the dangerous territory of a cheap, tasteless porno or adult xxx-film. Instead, it balances objectively-advanced/evolved storytelling packed with intellect, symbolism, & character development in something that just happens to be suggestive enough to get the endorphins flowing too. The film is a game-changing step in LGBTQ representation beyond anything pre-dating it – popularizing what love can be in all spectrums on-screen with such an electricity and magic that it feels sacrilegious to not root for their romance/happiness.

A Greek Mythological Backbone

The Tragedy Of Eurydice & Orpheus Metaphorized Onto Héloïse & Marianne

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

Most intellectually-rich is the film’s Greek mythological backbone – the allegorical tragedy it juxtaposes on its own. POALOF utilizes the ancient myth of Eurydice & Orpheus as a metaphor for the love and tale of Héloïse & Marianne. In the legend, Apollo’s son Orpheus is given an enchanted lyre whose melodies are irresistible to man & beast, attracting his true love Eurydice – whom he serenades & enjoys blissful marriage with until she dies by-snake-bite one day. His pain and turmoil (as well as the absence of his music) echo throughout the cosmos – leading him to the underworld, where Hades and Persephone agree to resurrect her.. if he can make it out the cave without turning back to gaze at her. Despite these instructions, he cannot bring himself to avoid looking back – he watches his beloved wife sucked back into the underworld for eternity out of faithlessness, impatience, memory-vs-presence, or some combination of the three. The story shares striking similarities to POALOF’s: an artist falls in love with their subject, is separated from them by cruel fate and circumstance, and ends up worlds-apart – forced to live out the remainder of their days in separation. The film even meta-interprets the symbolism itself in part – Sophie argues he looked back out of impatience/love, Marianne proposes that Orpheus chose to look back & keep the memory of Eurydice’s beauty over a decaying live-version of her, and Héloïse asserts that she told him to look back – begging into question the ‘poet’s parable’ of which is better in the long term? Marianne is Orpheus, Héloïse is Eurydice, the lyre this artist’s canvas, & the snake/act-of-looking-back emblematic of society/fate and whether to fight it here. The myth also reverberates the film’s central theme of the power of a gaze (whether it’s the absence of a male one or the symbolic act of what the gesture means) & delivers a rich philosophical wax aside its romance – climaxing in the multi-interpretive final opera scene (did she see her or not?) only outdone by art discourse.

Profound Thematic Analysis Of Art Topics

A Magnifying Glass To The Relationship Of Artist & Subject; The Craft of Painting

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

POALOF analyzes and takes a critic’s pen to the relationship between artist and subject; it might be one of the most avant-garde and original takes ever on the topic. What is the story behind Mona Lisa and her mysterious, age-defying smile that has perplexed historians for centuries? Who was she as a person? What was her connection to Da Vinci: Colleagues? Friends? Lovers? Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is fascinated by every detail, brushstroke, and decision a painter makes in the mystical, ancient art of taking a blank canvas and inscribing on it a work of beauty. Céline Sciamma manages to demystify the craft – through shots of real-life artist Helene Delmaire’s hands actually performing the task live, one charcoal sketch-line or color-grating at a time: an authentic portrayal of painting beyond screen conventions of before-after montages haphazardly/disinterestedly spliced-together. POALOF establishes the process as just important as the finalized product – a theme that parallels its central romance. From afar, their story doesn’t seem that passionate or special if you were to just watch the beginning and ending frames alone like you see a painting – but after seeing the intense escalation in the middle, it’s clear that there is so much more than meets-the-eye and entire stories packed behind every detail. This is indeed the power of motion pictures as an artform over its comparatively-static kin like painting and drawing – why we love cinema in the first place, symbolized beautifully here. POALOF also tackles feminist ideals and on-screen progressivism brilliantly – in a way that not once antagonizes or provokes any other group and the rest of the cinematic industry needs to see. Classically-feminist themes like historic discrimination being excluded from opportunities, having to submit works under male pseudonyms to gain acceptance in a field, reproductive rights, and portrayal in societal norms/expectations in things like body hair are all on display, but handled so expertly that they not once feel forced, condescending, provocative, or pandering – a refreshing, delicate, authentic, important representation and empathy trip into the plight of the woman and LGBTQ community historically that no reasonable person should have any problems with. Brilliant.

Flaws

The B-Arc & More Exposition Of Love

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

Flaws in POALOF are near-limited to its B-arc. The Sophie side plot, while very-important thematically showcasing the physiological and psychological hardships of the abortive process historically, is quite jarring story-wise. It distracts and takes valuable, limited time away from the main story and central romance we want to see – where the film feels far most at-home and could’ve gone further with. Better utilization of this sizable time spent on a bizarre side character in the periphery of the film’s events on giving its lovers more time in the sunlight together would’ve fleshed out the romance more – a glimpse into each other’s life post-separation, an idealistic hallucogen-induced vision of a future life together, or better yet: explore the harrowing & lightly-expositioned arc of Héloïse’s sister: why did she choose such a ghastly suicidal fate of jumping off the cliffs? Who was she as a character? Was it also because of forced marriage and LGBTQ-suppression? How did it affect the family, Héloïse, etc.?

Conclusion

A Cannes-Worthy Evolution

One Of The Sexiest, Most Powerful, Evocative, Passionate, Thematically-Rich, Breathtaking Films & Cinematic LGBTQ Representation Pieces Of All-Time

Photograph Courtesy Of: Lilies Films & Neon

Overall, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a masterpiece. It feels like we’re witnessing something we weren’t meant to see; a lost literary work or painting from the 18th century set ablaze for its ‘radical’ homosexual idealisms non-complacent with their (archaic) views of sex & sociological normalcy. Thankfully, society has evolved enough to finally sit down and hear a story like this out, and the result is breathtaking. Céline Sciamma’s film is one of the sexiest, most evocative, passionate, thematically-rich, and beautiful romance films of the decade – also doubling as a smithing critique of closed-mindedness, avant-garde technique showcase, artist-vs-subject discourse, & game-changer for women’s directorial opportunities and LGBTQ representation on-screen. This film, more so than anything else I’ve ever seen across media and pop culture – should make even the biggest cynic of homosexuality reexamine & introspect in their deepest psyche, perhaps (hopefully) concluding that ‘love [really] is love’ by the end of the two-hour journey. A brushstroke of pathos, romance, and visually-captivating emotion amidst the seaside rocky cliffs of 18th-Century France, Céline Sciamma has delivered a powerful Cannes-worthy masterpiece in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire – and the most breathtaking LGBTQ film ever made.

Official CLC Score: 9.5/10