This is the second time I’ve seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The first time I watched it I was not impressed. Usually, I love long French films, but this one had a hard time capturing my interest. The movie, while beautifully filmed, never touched my emotions. Still, now that I’m going through a phase of reviewing lesbian films, I was willing to give it another chance. To be honest, it took me like three days to finish this film for the second time, I would get distracted so easily. But in the end, I did revise my opinion of the film somewhat.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows the story of Marianne, a painter, as she arrives to paint the portrait of Héloïse who is to be married off shortly after. Marianne has to try and paint in secret as the last time someone tried to make a portrait of Héloïse she refused to pose. As time goes by the women form a bond and start a romance.
My first thoughts on this film were as follows:
Maybe this is some people’s first experience with French film, which I can understand would be awe inspiring.
A subtitle of it should have been titled “How to Look at a woman”
Building of character in the first few minutes. We see her jump out of the boat to rescue some of her belongings. Shows she is fearless, willing to do things some women wouldn’t. Though as she’s sitting in the boat completely drenched she looks as if she regrets the decision a little bit.
Supposed to be mysterious why the previous painter was unable to do her portrait, but I find it boring.
Then what caught my attention was the bare scenes, the unused house, the simple rooms limited props. Some people might like the minimalism, but after watching Ammonite where every scene had such purposeful detail work, this was such a contrast. But on the other hand, the director seemed to be making significant scenes look like paintings, which I loved. In the scene where the main character is talking to the maid over food, both are posed across from each other at the table with what could have been items for a still life in the background. Also, the scene where both women and the maid are in the tall yellow grass, bending down and looking for herbs. There was still something picturesque in the simplicity.
A word for me that sums up this film is simplistic. When I first watched the film last year that was a negative. This time I could see the beauty in the simplicity, but that didn’t stop me from wanting more. I wanted more character development and specifically more building of the women’s relationship.
You have two different women, who and each in their own ways want more from life, they want to be able to choose their own paths. Marianne has the ability to choose but is also held back by not being a man. Héloïse on the other hand has never had a choice and sees no way to ever claim her freedom. But what I didn’t realize is that the story takes place over 11 days, which is such a short amount of time! There was more to be explored. I wanted to see the intricacy of their difference. I could see why the characters are attracted to each other but didn’t understand why they fell in love. They are so different and it felt like the story barely touched on Marianne’s privilege compared to Héloïse. I don’t think the story’s timeline lined up with how intense of a relationship they had with each other.
In the end, I did decide that I liked this film, though it took me watching it twice. However, I do think it’s overhyped as far as lesbian films go. I would rate this film three out five stars.