North of France, 1770. Marianne, a painter, is sent to paint a portrait of Heloise, a young lady who was forced out of a convent to get married. The portrait will define Heloise’s future because it is only upon seeing it that her planned fiance will decide whether he wants her as his wife. But there is a problem: Heloise refuses to be painted. So Marianne must pretend to be a companion for the young lady while secretly painting her portrait.
Have you ever seen a woman having her period in a film? Think about it for a few seconds. Apart from the horror film Carrie, I certainly hadn’t. My question might seem odd but the scene where Marianne wakes up at night because of her period made me realise with a shock that in the hundreds of films I have seen, I have never seen this. Menstruation concerns half of the population and yet it is hardly ever presented on screen. (If you are curious, here is a list of the few times when menstruation appears in films, note that it is nearly always treated as a source of humour: https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2017/09/170252/period-scenes-film-menstruation-in-movies). This might be a strange detail to remember from this film about passion, romance and secrets, but for me it reveals why we need films like Portrait of a Lady On Fire. We need the female gaze, offered in this case by director Celine Sciamma.
Compared to most romances seen in films (I couldn’t help but compare with Blue is the Warmest Colour, that other French film about female romance) the female body is never sexualised in Portrait of a Lady On Fire, but viewed with softness and adoration. It is beautiful enough to be painted, but the beauty is found in elements such as the hands, the neck and the ears instead of the usual breasts or hips – the parts of the body that imprison the characters in the female condition. It is their strength and minds that are celebrated, because they are the real source of their attractiveness and liberation.
While I am grateful to see a story about women, finally directed by a woman, that alone was not enough to involve me in the story. I sensed a lack of chemistry between the two leads and I felt that like the paintings Marianne paints, there was not much depth to them. Heloise (played by Adele Haenel) was interesting to watch because she expresses fascinating leaps between anger and childish joy. Marianne (Noemie Merlant), however, was quite bland, filling the trope of the protagonist who passively watches everything unfolding. Perhaps due to the lack of chemistry, the romance felt forced, and also made the film feel extremely slow, some would say justifiably as the pace reflects life in the 18th century. I truly enjoyed a few scenes where more was happening, such as when they played cards, read books, and a very interesting scene where they help the maidservant get out of a tricky situation.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a refreshing take on the female romance that is very much needed today. However, in my opinion it lacks in intrigue. I would advise you to go and see it if you enjoy period dramas or if you want to support female filmmakers, but not if you are looking for a story that keeps you on your toes.
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