Shut-In Cinema: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

We’re living in an age where artistry is the thing keeping us sane. Many of us are cooped-up, sick of hearing politicians shout at each other, and worried about finances. The one thing I’ve seen come out of this is a growing appreciation for art and artistry. More people are reading, binging television, drawing or painting, and of course…watching films. It seems appropriate that Hulu has put Céline Sciamma’s beautiful film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, out there for all subscribers. I’ve been hearing about this damned thing for over a year now, with many citing it as one of the best films of 2019, and I finally got to sit down and give it a whirl. I can confirm that it is truly beautiful.

So there’s this painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant). She’s hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman that has been promised to a Milanese nobleman. Problems have arisen since Héloïse doesn’t want to get married, hiding in her room and refusing to sit for anyone. Marianne has been hired to serve as a companion by day, studying her subject as they walk and talk, and to paint a portrait by night. 

Complicated relationships require complicated setups and Sciamma doesn’t shy away from it. Artistry is, in the end, about the relationship one has with their subject. Whether writing an article or painting a portrait, it’s necessary to get wrapped into an intimacy with your subject and if you can’t do that your work will suffer. And Portrait of a Lady on Fire definitely paints these relationships as work. Marianne’s brushstrokes feel focused and specific, but also full of effort and pressure akin to watching a blacksmith with his hammer. Every glance at Héloïse, every time she examines her mannerisms or the cartilage of her ears, it all requires patience and targeted attention. This kind of intimacy leads to another and, when Héloïse’s mother leaves town for a while, the women enter a relationship. 

Héloïse asks Marianne at one point, “When do we know it’s finished?” “At one point, we stop,” Marianne replies. The audience is left sitting in anticipation, waiting for this moment from the painter and the betrothed. It’s coming, there’s no stopping it, but we desperately hope for one of them to make the leap and drag the other into the night. Héloïse is engaged to a man and Marianne is painting the portrait that will seal the deal. Sure, the film serves up a heaping plate of inevitability, but it also allows you to revel in the joys and understandings in the middle. Part of the joy of art and intimacy is the middle, not worrying about the end until you arrive at it. The craft itself, the happy moments and misgivings and joys and mistakes, they all serve as the points to focus on as we put off our finale as long as possible. 

Take Portrait of a Lady on Fire at face value. It’s an earnest, honest offering and now that it’s available for everyone’s viewing I think it’s time to give it a shot. There’s beauty in not just the craft but the memory of it, whether a song tied to a happy memory or capturing the image of a joyous woman that has momentarily caught her dress on fire. Take heart, calm yourself down, and take in Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece. Hell, she won awards at Cannes for this. Give it a shot.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently streaming on Hulu.

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