Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The tension becomes palpable almost immediately upon their meeting. At first, the dialogue and backstory misdirect us with a threat of suicide or the in-story deceit, but quickly that dissolves into the unspoken pressure of attraction. The performers' eyes do most of the work for long periods of time; their bodies forced to say what their characters cannot. They keep it locked away as expertly as any two queer women could; to an outside observer they are just "fond of each other." When the observers depart, what was a tight wire becomes a fraying cord; the inevitable snap is so satisfying.

Sexual arousal is a special pleasure. As my body has changed over the last four and a half years, the experience of arousal has changed, too. I can still replicate the old arousal, feel it in the same ways, but it feels muted, off, wrong; it always felt wrong but now it feels like a shadow of its former power as well. New forms of arousal have taken me by surprise; I did not understand them at first, did not recognize them. The feeling along the side of my neck, where it meets my jaw under my ears; the knots in my stomach; the ache between my legs that feels nothing like what I once knew. The flush in my face and breasts. These feelings are more intense than anything I knew before; they are coupled now with a new sensation, of affirmation. Once I realized what was happening, I felt renewed, alive in a way I never could have imagined. I don't know what cis women feel when they are aroused, but this is what a trans woman feels. It is beautiful.

From about the time they nearly kiss in the painting room to the end of the film, my body responded. I know that the quarantine (I am now working from home, away from the occasional kink or cuddle, away from my very physical, hugging, touching comrades, away from my friends and the soft embraces and casual glancing touches, away from even the handshakes of the workplace) and my history of touch starvation feed into it. I feel a yearning for touch that can be distracting, painful, because it dredges up echoes of my 10+ year semi-isolation. But it takes a special kind of film to awaken my body like this, even in times like this. Other films across these last few days did not come close, no matter their attempts at sex scenes or resonating relationships.

This film, these performances, these colors, these backdrops, these camera angles, these visions stirred me. The singing at the feast sets a tone of communal power. The first kiss is the snap, the moment the cord splits and the fevered desire pours out. The second kiss somehow manages to make that first one feel perfunctory. That the film cuts away from the most graphic physical contact in that moment doesn't matter. It comes back on white and flesh tones, bodies together. The color-coded dresses lost, the union in white softly filling our senses. And when a hand plunges into an armpit, the divorce from the expected marries with the obvious visual metaphor in a way that makes it even more intense. But the masterpiece is their final sexual experience, wherein a drawing is made; the positioning is almost comical, and yet seeing the sketch, the mirror, and the body in that scene... the pleasure in my body still lingers.

In my mind during the film, I began to ponder what made a film a good queer film. I could feel the unhappy ending coming from a mile away, and I was very hesitant to endorse yet another lesbian misery tale. What I got was something else entirely: a film that presents the argument of the value of the memory of an encounter and earns it. I felt every bit of the encounter; my body felt the encounter. It didn't matter how it ended after that, though the filmmakers use the incomparable power of a human face to convey everything we needed to know (her weeping face and, moments before, a number). What makes a great queer film? Physicality, apparently.

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