Combustible Celluloid
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With: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Written by: Céline Sciamma
Directed by: Céline Sciamma
MPAA Rating: R for some nudity and sexuality
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 121
Date: 02/14/2020

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Paint of Heart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Starting sometime last fall, buzz on the street was that Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire was going to be a masterpiece, and one with sumptuous, award-worthy cinematography. IndiWire critics even proclaimed it one of the 100 best movies of the decade as early as last July.

As satisfying as it would be to jump on that bandwagon, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which finally opens Valentine's Day of 2020, isn't quite all it's cracked up to be.

The French-language film opens in the 18th century, with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching an art class to a group of young girls. One of them has taken out a beautiful, mysterious painting, a portrait of a lady on fire.

Marianne seems pained by the portrait. A student asks the title of the piece, the camera dramatically tracks in on Marianne, a pause, and she says it: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."

To quote Billie Eilish, "Duh."

The movie then flashes back to the origin story of the portrait of the lady on fire. She is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has just quit a nunnery and returned home, where her mother (Valeria Golino, from Rain Man and the Hot Shots! films) pressures her to marry.

To lure in a husband, Héloïse needs a portrait, but since she refuses to sit for one — and has driven away other painters — Marianne is hired as a ruse; she'll pretend to be Héloïse's companion and paint in secret.

Of course, the two women fall in love.

The movie contains a heartrending moment in which Héloïse emerges for the first time, clad in cloak and hood and marching toward the beach. Marianne follows behind, trying to catch up, wondering what the young lady looks like.

A gust of wind blows off her hood, showing her pinned-up chestnut-blonde hair, but also somehow deepening the mystery even more. If only it could have lasted.

It's not long before the two women are sitting on the beach, conversing in basic, "over-the-shoulder" back-and-forth camera setups.

The much-vaunted cinematography turns out to be mostly this, plus the occasional nighttime shot lit by fire or candle, and one or two poetic shots in which the women's faces eclipse one another, as in Ingmar Bergman's Persona.

By opening with the classroom sequence (and why would Marianne keep the painting on hand if she doesn't want the students to see it?) and flashing back, plus the fact that we can guess the story's outcome due to the time and place, the movie has little suspense, little momentum.

It also has very little heat. One striking scene in which Marianne sketches a secret-self portrait using a mirror balanced against Héloïse's naked body comes too late and is all too rare.

An earlier LGBTQ movie, 2013's Blue Is the Warmest Color was far more effective at showing the women becoming thoroughly lost in one another, both emotionally and physically, although an argument could be made that the "male gaze" was involved.

Conversely, Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers much quiet elegance, with more than a handful of beautiful scenes, such as Marianne diving out of a boat to rescue her fallen canvases, then sitting by the fire, smoking a pipe, and waiting for them to dry.

It has enough to make it worth a look, not to mention that its 250 year-old story is still somewhat sadly relevant in this time of rage and hate.

But a little more economy and anticipation could have made it better. It somewhat recalls Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's great 1943 I Walked with a Zombie — in which a nurse is hired to come to a remote island to care for a mysterious female patient — without the romance, but with the walks on the beach.

Yet that movie conveys more mystery and beauty in 69 minutes than Portrait of a Lady on Fire does in 119 minutes. More brush strokes doesn't necessarily result in better art.

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