Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Whether suppressed or actualised, that characteristic sense of longing within queer romance is entirely relatable to the escapism offered in the fantasy worlds of art. In our voyeurism we're encouraged to idealise and fetishise the lives existing behind the faces we encounter. We yearn for self-discovery in their company, hoping for a brief moment to forget the entire process is an illusion.

It's a tension Céline Sciamma uses to express the heavy ache of desire for companionship and creative expression; to allow yourself to feel something, to be understood. Taking no shortcuts, and with no non-diegetic music to steer emotional responses: a straightforward, yet rich exploration of a relationship between painter Marianne, and her subject Héloïse. Blending moods of attraction-repulsion, acceptance-denial.

Any eroticism is contained entirely in the curation of stolen, searching, unreciprocated glances; building toward the moment where the two women choose to step over the threshold and break the barrier of touch. Once their romantic feelings are spoken into existence, Sciamma shows no interest in depicting sex. A rare instance of privacy from the unrelenting critical gaze; a female oriented historical perspective with a distinct set of interests and priorities.

Verbally referencing the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the finale centres upon the fear of memory’s inevitable slow fade into nothing, and the imagined consolation in the facsimiles we create as mementos.

Accompanied by the sounds of Vivaldi, the final shot challenges us to make sense of Héloïse's internal thoughts. After all the time we've spent watching, what do the movements of her face, or her tears reveal to us? We're left stranded on the outside looking in; restlessly scratching away at the canvas for answers, uncovering its possibilities, its fluctuations, its limitations.

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