Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels so much like an answer to Celine Sciamma’s first film with Adele Haenel: Water Lilies. Both revolve around sapphic yearning—the wordless, self-contained ache it evokes, how girls visually take in eachother, enrapture eachother without vocalizing how they feel.

Celine Sciamma might be the only director working right now who can really communicate this speechlessness. Like I’ve said in my Carol review, filmmakers that successfully portray female desire tend to excel at shot composition and other nonverbal characteristics as opposed to verbal ones, maybe because the language for such relationships isn’t as firmly established. The devil is in the details for wlw cinema. And being a lesbian herself, Sciamma is keenly aware of which details those are. 

But what’s most interesting about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is how distinguished it is from the rest of Sciamma’s filmography! She’s famous, specifically, for modern stories about adolescent female desire—the fluidity of girls in their formative years, their bittersweet woe, unrequited love, uncertain identities. Water Lilies ends with two girls (one being a 16 or 17 year-old Adele Haenel) floating in a lane pool, sifting in the cold instability we all felt at that age. It’s not a melodramatic tragedy—just how things are while you are growing up—but it’s lonely and quiet.

Compare this to the burning crescendo Sciamma gives us at Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s close. It’s devastating yes, but so bright and clear and powerful. They aren’t confused teenagers, unsure of the future, reluctant towards their own meek feelings. They are late-twentysomething women leaning into the memory of how hot their desires burned. They bask in what has taken place as Vivaldi rolls on. They do not regret it.

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