Portrait of a Lady on Fire a Rare Treasure

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Directed by Céline Sciamma
Pyramide Films, 122 minutes, R (nudity, abortion)
In French, Italian, and Latin with subtitles

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a huge hit in LGBTQ film festivals for its frank and steamy take on the relationship between two women, a painter and her subject. Do not make the mistake of thinking of it as “just” a lesbian film. It is one of the best movies of the past two years, period. That’s why Céline Sciamma won a César award for both best director and best screenplay, why Claire Mathon won for best cinematography, and why the film carried off the Palme d’or Jury Prize. It’s also why it has won recognition from everyone from the Golden Globes to the National Board of Review. 

The film opens to a gowned art teacher, Marianne (Noémïe Merlant), posing for her students while offering instruction on how to observe. As the class draws to an end, a student asks her if a painting in the back of the room of a woman peering out across the ocean is one of hers. Marianne acknowledges that it is, and is titled Portrait de la jeune fille en feu. With this we flash back to 1770, when Marianne is in a small boat being rowed across sea swells to an island off the coast of Brittany. At one point she dives into the ocean to retrieve a large flat box filed with canvasses.

On land, the soggy Marianne hauls said box and other belongings up a steep cliff to a cheerless and spartan estate, where she meets the Countess (Valeria Golino). Marianne is tasked with painting a portrait of the Countess’ daughter Héloïse (Adèle Kaenel) that will be sent to a Milanese nobleman destined to be her future husband. (Think of how anyone in an impending arranged marriage would know what their betrothed looked like in the days before photography.) Marianne must pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and get close enough to memorize her features, as Héloïse disfigured the previous male painter’s effort.

Posing as a companion isn’t hard, but getting close is. We learn that Héloïse was called back to Brittany from a convent after her sister, the intended bride, threw herself off a cliff. The only other person in the house is a servant, Sophie (Luàna Bejrami) so there’s lots of room to roam, as the estate is far from the village. Marianne and Héloïse spend a lot of time walking along windy bluffs–almost wordlessly for a time, as Héloïse has no desire to be married and misses the music of the convent. She knows next to nothing about the world and is essentially out of her element. After endless hours traipsing moors, headlands, and beaches Marianne is exhausted and must force herself to paint. I imagine some of you are holding Gothic thoughts–battered old home, windswept cliffs, foul weather…. There are even spectral visions. Stop! This is not Jane Eyre Lite.

Marianne will soon become Héloïse’s conduit for learning about the world. As Héloïse’s exterior thaws, frisson sparks between them. Héloïse is especially intrigued to learn that Marianne has no desire to marry and plans to take over her father’s business when he passes. Soon the two and Sophie spend time talking, playing cards, and gadding about. Before you can say forbidden love, Marianne and Héloïse have shared a bed. When the Countess must leave for a week on the mainland, Héloïse’s emotional and physical love for Marianne deepens. An attempt to help Sophie leads Marianne and Héloïse into the company of village women. The film features a gorgeous sequence of women on the beach after sunset, singing around a bonfire. Their tune is wild and uninhibited, with keening evocative of Balkan music, though it’s actually a piece Sciamma wrote. The hand clapping and soaring voices evoke a witches’ coven, though it’s nothing of the sort. It is, however, one of two episodes that make sense of the film’s title.

To add still another layer of awakening, Marianne and Héloïse read to Sophie. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice baffles her. Why, Sophie wonders, would Orpheus make his way to the Underworld to reclaim his love and then do the one thing he was told not to do: look behind him until he was outside of the abyss. Héloïse’s response startles Marianne and I will only say that it is a unique female perspective that she will later use in a painting.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film about passion at a time in which independent-minded women had to be careful about many things. And sometimes they must simply yield to social expectations. Among the things the film does well is give us glimpses into how painters think and practice their craft, how the heart tricks the mind, and how planted seeds blossom later. The performances of Merlant and Haenel are marvels to behold, and one can only be astounded by Sciamma’s efforts. What more could she do after writing the script, some of the music, and directing? Well, she also hired a painter who reportedly spent 16 hours a day at her easel so that her work could mesh with the demands of the narrative in real time. Sciamma also uses the untamed coast of Brittany near Saint-Pierre-Quiberon as if it’s a major character. Sometimes its waters sparkle in turquois; at others it is white-capped fury evocative of inner turmoil.

Where does love go when it is sniped too early?  Page 28 gives a clue, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” another, and painted canvasses still more. None of this will make sense unless you see the film. Call them three good reasons to do so, and there are many more. If I might, Portrait of a Lady On Fire is a painterly treasure.

Rob Weir


Small Towns: Sturbridge MA

Welcome to Sturbridge


{Note: Photos taken in the summer of 2019, which is why no one is masked. Clicking on images will reveal it in a LARGE size}

Welcome to the first version of a doable “Small Towns” feature since March. Current evidence suggests that masking, social distancing, and being outside is the safest formula other than barricading yourself in your home, so let’s visit a place that combines these features: Sturbridge, Massachusetts.

The Worcester County domicile of Sturbridge is indeed a small town–just 9,268 people–within spittin’ distance of Connecticut. It has a picturesque town green, several lakes for recreation, the Tantiusques nature reserve, and–in the section known as Fiskdale–the Blackington Building, an eye-catching red brick block built in what I call Gothic barn style. None of these things would tempt most folks to go there. Except for one thing, Sturbridge would be a sleepy town occasionally awakened by a busy traffic merge where the Mass Pike joins Interstate 84. That one thing is Old Sturbridge Village (OSV).

I can practically hear the eyerolls. If you grew up anywhere within 90 minutes of OSV, chances are good you were once dragged to OSV on a school field trip. I’ve heard many a New Englander say they would rather re-shingle the roof–even if it doesn’t need it–than go back to Old Sturbridge. OSV tends not to get a lot of love from locals, and I confess that I was one of them. Until last summer, I hadn’t visited since I was living in Vermont, and that was 35 years ago.

Allow me to offer the view that it’s usually a good idea to let go of youthful prejudices. If you need to get out of Dodge for a bit–and who doesn’t right now?–OSV will surprise you. If you have a family, there are 200 acres where the kiddos can roam and somehow, it’s not the same deal as when teachers are watching over them. I observed kids squealing with delight at all of the farm animals queuing for hayrides, munching on molasses cookies, and playing old-time games like hoop the hoop.

OSV is an outdoor museum that presents itself as a typical New England farm village between the years 1790-1830. It’s artifice, of course. There isn’t much left of the real Sturbridge and most of that lies in the town, some quarter of a mile away. OSV is an imagined village in which homes, churches, businesses, and structures were moved from elsewhere and rebuilt on the OSV site. Farms were laid out in places that were decidedly unlike 19th century farms. For one thing, they are clean, lack sucking mud streets, and don’t reek of mold and manure. Nor are the farmers covered in excrement and followed by clouds of flies. (Believe me, few tourists would ever wish to visit an ‘authentic’ 19th century farm!) 

Adults can, however, appreciate the art in the artifice and learn a few things. Many of the costumed guides try to stay in period character, and even those who don’t–such as some of the artisans–devote themselves to producing tinwork, leather goods, milled lumber, baked goods, woven textiles, and more in accordance with historically accurate methods and technology. So what if someone occasionally excuses himself to pull an iPhone from his breeches to answer a call? OSV is a treasure trove for antiquarians, but also for latter-day artisans and builders who enjoy comparing the old ways to the new. Plus, unless you’re lucky enough to employ a team of gardeners, you can get a botanical education by wandering though the herb garden. Both the pasture and river walks are bucolic, healthful, and restorative. Except for the trails, most things are wheelchair accessible.

In short, OSV is simply a nice way to while away a summer’s day. You might even wish to venture into the actual town. I won’t say it’s a gourmand’s delight–more of a pizza, fast food, and quick Chinese or Thai kind of place–but you can find spots to relax and refuel before driving home. Isn’t it time to exorcise those old fieldtrip demons?

Rob Weir