Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

intensity beauty depth of feeling
“do all lovers feel as if they’re inventing something?”
a true portrait

*don’t read ahead if you haven’t seen it! i don’t want to alter or inform anyone’s impressions*

coming back to this a day after seeing, after having some time to think and talk about this film, i just wanted to leave a few more thoughts

the dialogue was simple and sparse in this movie, but so, so much more was said in the long silences, the tense breaths, the exchanged looks and touches.

and it felt so incredibly real. i believed that these two women and their love really did exist; i felt like i was looking into their private lives, a romance no one was supposed to know about, and that was a privilege. yet at the same time, they’re never framed for the film viewer’s voyeurism. but they certainly are each other’s voyeurs— perfectly illustrated by the scene where héloïse explains that when she poses for her portrait, marianne is not invisible to her subject but is in fact also being observed and studied down to the last detail. “when you’re tense, you breathe through your mouth.” that is what makes the entire film a portrait of these women in its own right— the details are not always shown literally, technically, or in a straightforward way (like marianne’s first attempt at the portrait), but are more like her final draft, capturing the details through subtle and implied expression, informed by a deep and intimate knowledge of its subject(s). 

there’s so much to love about the use of motifs and allusion (eurydice and orpheus, the song, page 28). these were of course additive to the film’s artfulness, but they’re also a reminder that viewers can find the same kinds of poetry in our own lives too, if we look for it. the things héloïse and marianne found symbolic and meaningful were completely specific and unique to their love story, and also conveyed such a relatable and universal part of being in love. the objects that seem unextraordinary to the average onlooker but hold immeasurable meaning for two lovers; the parallels that exist between a piece of literature and your own experience that are so poetic and fit so precisely that you have to laugh (or cry); the song that you hear days, months, or years later that miraculously still uncontrollably brings you to tears, as if the emotions and the person and the experience associated with it were there only yesterday. it’s simultaneously a specific portrait of two people, and a universalizingly simple story of a fleeting romance constrained by a ticking clock. if you have been in any kind of similar situation, you know these feelings: it is intense, passionate, more real than anything you’ve ever felt, and intelligible to no one but each other. that one line is crystal clear. “do all lovers feel as if they’re inventing something?” (yes).

by the way, the cinematography. uh. gonna remember it forever. i don’t remember if the score had more than two songs but it didn’t even need a score.

also, i realize now just how amazing the start of the movie is. the first painting we see isn’t just there to introduce the film’s title— the actual Portrait de la jeune fille en feu— at the end of the story, i understand it as the way marianne has chosen to remember héloïse. a lady on fire. that intense image of her, staring directly across the bonfire into marianne’s eyes and caring about nothing but that eye contact, not even her dress aflame. as they lay in bed together while marianne recreates a locket-size version of the wedding portrait, héloïse says, poignantly, “at some point, when you think of me, you will see her and she will replace me.” thinking back to the film’s first scene, we can see that marianne has chosen to remember her a different way.

finally, when héloïse tells her “turn around,” and marianne complies, they are incontestably mimicking the story of orpheus and eurydice, but with their added understanding of what made orpheus turn. both of them have made not the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. given no alternative ending to their story, they choose to remember each other this way.

a final note— i’m feeling so appreciative of this movie. for showing multiple kinds of love between women— mother and daughter, friends bonded by a shared experience (sophie!the portrait of her and héloïse captured my heart), and of course the romance between female lovers. for showing a love between women that is rarely captured onscreen in an honest way and with a non-tragic story. granted, in a way the story is tragic because they ultimately cannot be together, but this film makes clear, and imparts useful wisdom for any viewer that may relate, that there is an astounding beauty to be derived from a tragedy like this. and the key is not to regret, but to remember.

Maya liked this review