If there was one movie in 2019 festival going people wouldn’t shut up about, it was definitely this one. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was all I heard about from certain people I trust, so I was really looking forward to it.
And the result… I don’t want to say it was underwhelming, because that just wouldn’t be fair, as this is cinema in its purest form. Let’s just say, it took me a while to get used to this quiet (except couple of parts, there is no soundtrack, no background music, nothing at all) and slow burning (get it? Because she’s on fire…) drama. I’m having a hard time writing about this movie without getting into some details of a plot or possible spoilers, so without further ado…
Beware, SPOILERS are coming!
The “issue” is, I’ve seen a trailer and I heard what the movie is actually about – two women falling for each other, in a time where that thing wasn’t really easy to do. And the trailer was cut exactly as modern trailers are – to sell you the movie, to get you to see it by ANY MEANS NECESSARY. So it made this movie look like something, it wasn’t really…? I know this is not a movie’s fault and I mean, don’t get me wrong, this movie is definitely about a painter, who’s tasked to paint a wedding picture of a woman in secrecy. But soon, the truth comes out, and they start getting closer, until they fall for each other. So far so good, right? Yes, except if you go into this expecting a “juicy” drama, you’ve come to the wrong show.
When I said “slow burning”, I meant slow burning, as we don’t actually see them admit their feelings for each other until there’s “only” 40 minutes left. Most of the movie is basically a setup for us to fully understand both of these characters. Which is a ballsy choice, to make a movie in this day and age, where attention spans are getting shorter, and we are so used to scenes, that have 156 cuts in a minute and on top of that have dramatic music in the background, to tell us how to feel about it. This film doesn’t do that, it lets each of us decide how we want to feel and the absence of any music was a brilliant choice. So brilliant, I need to talk about it a bit more.
Plenty of filmmakers nowadays rely on soundtrack/music, as it can make, or sometimes, break a scene. And there is nothing wrong with that, after all, we all are suckers for a great soundtrack, me included. And Portrait of a Lady on Fire could’ve had some sort of ethereal, piano, maybe a few violins kind of soundtrack, really easily, that would’ve underlined some scenes, where it would’ve worked so well and I would’ve probably loved it even more. And yet, I am so glad it didn’t. As when you remove these “clutches” (and I need to repeat this again, I am in no way, shape or form disrespecting any sound people, musicians etc., as I admire what they do and I could never do what they do) you almost strip the movie of clothing, that protects it and reveal everything, bones, bruises, skin. You make your film more vulnerable. And that is why it worked so well for this particular film, in order for us to fully feel, what these women are feeling for each other, we needed to have the protective layer stripped, so it can standout even more. Céline Sciamma, I admire and applaud you.
That is what makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire unique – what could’ve been yet another, run of the mill kind of historical drama (but hey, this time with lesbians!) we’ve seen so many times before, was elevated to a higher level, because somebody in charge had the balls to not only do something risky, but also was smart enough to know, how to convey the lesbian love story. What I mean by that, Céline Sciamma is not only a woman director, but also lesbian. And we desperately need more people like her directing stories through her eyes, as she knows more about this than your average dude. You can tell this wasn’t shot in salacious way, where bunch of guys wanted to see (naked) girls make out. That’s yet another aspect that worked about this movie – everything was portrayed with such a raw honesty, it genuinely sneaks up on you, where once you see the final 5 minutes, you do get a bit emotional, because you’ve been on this journey with them.
The only slight knock I have against this film, there are scenes that could’ve been trimmed, just a tiny bit – maybe 10/15 minutes or so. I am all for building up atmosphere, slow burning dramas, but maybe, just maybe, if couple of scenes here and there stayed on the cutting room floor, this would have flown slightly better for me.
But who knows? Maybe, once I see it a second time, I won’t mind it at all and my rating will change, who knows. What I know for sure is, I will follow Céline Sciamma more closely now and I’m secretly hoping I’m not the only one (people in Hollywood, give her a call, a decent amount of money, don’t talk into her process and just let her work, are we clear?) as she deserves to be a household name. I can’t wait what she’s got in store for us next.
That’s all for this one! Did you see it? What did you think about it? Let me know!
Until next time,