Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

In a lot of ways this feels like the culmination of Celine Sciamma's work, her voice realized in a way that she had not yet achieved. It's a continuation of themes and ideas that have been a staple of Sciamma's projects - yet taken to a much larger scale. Looking at the complexity of identity beyond sexuality, in a landscape that is riddled with contradictions - wide and open yet perforated with secrets, composed yet hot-tempered.

The film is peppered with these opposites. Covered and uncovered, hidden and visible, ranging from the physical to the abstract. Intense emotional wants are hidden in convention, only revealing themselves in the minutiae of gesture. The way a character holds their hands, the way they smile. Small moments that are pregnant with potential for interpretation. Not only do these instances hold emotional resonance, they pool together to create identity.

The film presents identity as something formed from a series of moments and motions. Not simply stemming from sexuality or gender, which are but two components of identity. It's part cultural and part natural, the more we experience, the more it grows. Which it what seems to be at the heart of this film. Characters are presented with several catalysts that gear them towards an awakening of identity. These aren't necessarily moments that are overstated or even particularly emotional - when seen out of context - yet once they are placed alongside each other, they become deeply affective.

There's a wonderful motif throughout, a paintbrush marking a blank canvas. The more Marianne gets to know Héloïse, the more detailed the painting becomes. Just as the more each character experiences, be that through various forms of culture (music and literature) or forms of nature (fire and water), the more pronounced and defined their identities become. The characters hold such huge depth - with their identities reaching much further than their immediate physicality, further than even their sexuality and gender. But it seems that these heavily layered identities are born from a place of convention and social contract.

It feels as if Marianne and Héloïse are simultaneously discovering and repressing identity. Existing within the fringes of protocol and disagreement. All of which is manifested within the locale of the beach. A place that exists between two places, at once both calm and anxious - both known and obscure. The conventions of home and society lay behind them, a wavering uncertainty in front of them, in the form of the sea. Héloïse wants to walk into it but it's rough nature often proves too much, convention seems easier.

These slight and subtle subversions/challenges of convention bring an energy to the film. An accessible conflict, repression of identity through convention. That repressed love or desire for something forbidden manifests itself in other places - in places that are deemed proper or suitable. Such as in fine art, theater or fashion. Which makes characters love for these things feel so much more arresting. We know the underlying motive.

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