Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review

After Parasite last month, I find myself feeling more open than ever towards foreign films. I had initially been dismissive of films from a different culture, purely from a language perspective; oftentimes a language is far too complex to translate directly to English, but once I mentally got over that hurdle in my own mind, the easier it was to actually get used to watching subtitled films.

It helped, certainly in Parasite’s case, that the film itself was accessible enough from a foreign perspective, and universal in its appeal (the same could be said of Pain and Glory, the Spanish film I reviewed last summer) but this film is completely different in that regard.

I’ve always found French film to be quite obtuse in its nature, perhaps I might even go as far as saying quite a lot of them are pretentious, art over enjoyment affairs, that I’m further alienated from by the language difference. But still, with a fresh perspective recently gained, I figured that now was as good a time as any to give it another go.

PoaLoF tells the story of a woman, grieving for her recently deceased sister, who has been promised to a marriage she does not want, as she gradually falls in love with the woman hired to paint her portrait.

The film is, on the basest possible level, a love story. I might even go as far as to call it a ‘forbidden love’ story; with the film being set in the 18th Century when such homosexual relationships were very much taboo (as well as touching on other forbidden-at-the-time subjects).

In its queer subtexts, and leisurely pace, it reminds me of Call Me By Your Name (even going so far as to subconsciously lift that films ending), only with gay women, instead of gay men, and without Timothee Chalamet, thus making it automatically worse.

I joke, of course, the film has won a fair amount of plaudits during its festival runs last year, and I could see why it would catch the eye of festival panels, it’s artful, and expertly shot, with a really lovely central relationship; I don’t think however, it will find such a warm reception amongst a more casual cinema-going public.

Don’t get me wrong, I really loved the film. But I am the kind of audience that would, a hardcore cinephile seeking new cultural pastures. I’m a sucker for the kind of film that would bore your usual customer, and that’s what I think works against it.

Whereas I could see Parasite drawing in a casual crowd with an engaging story that transcends national borders, and an accessible script even with the subtitles, PoaLoF is the opposite. It’s a more languid (read: slow) story, with a bit more of a clunky feel to an outsider, I would forgive you for feeling like nothing much happens for long periods of the film, because I thought the same on occasions.

Some of this could, of course, be put down to cultural differences. Almost every French film I’ve seen have been slow paced and about as penetrable as a concrete block, but there are glimmers of hope that set this film apart from films I’ve seen previously.

I mentioned the central relationship a few paragraphs ago as being: ‘really lovely’ and it is, it’s a very well built dynamic, building an air of mystery around the betrothed woman (Heloise, played by Adele Haenel) leading up to her first meeting the woman hired to paint her (Marianne, played by Noemie Merlant) we don’t actually see her face for a good portion of the opening act, leading us to drawing our own conclusions on her looks.

All of this is accompanied by some truly great camera work, shot in crystal clarity, with some of the scenes being framed just like the paintings that the central relationship revolves around, such is their artistic presentation. All this is all very well and good, but it might not make up for the pedestrian pace for some viewers.

The love story element of the story is very well handled though, it remains obvious to the audience what will happen, but we’re left waiting to see how and when it will, I’d say we’re wrong-footed and kept off-guard for just the right amount of time, before I started to lose interest, their interactions and chemistry kept me interested, but had the film goner any longer without officially establishing the romance, it would have felt even slower.

As I said earlier, I really enjoyed this film, I thought it was very charming, and I grew to love the characters and invest in their burgeoning relationship, but I don’t think it will establish a great hold amongst a wider audience; it’s a perfect example of a film that is beloved at festivals and by critics, yet met with apathy by the bulk of audiences, it’s an auteur film, which is great for those who like that kind of thing, but it is a very limited market.

I can also appreciate a queer film that unashamedly deals with a same-sex relationship the way this film does, treating it like any regular love story. Even though the sense of danger from the time period is felt by the audience, it isn’t used as a crutch by the film, which is refreshing, going a long way to normalising such portrayals, something I’m completely supportive of.

In conclusion then, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a lovely film, beautifully shot and acted, but one which I feel will struggle to find an audience. It’s comfortably the best French film I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen many) and it will no doubt excite critics, it’s just a shame that it isn’t likely to be to a lot of other peoples tastes.

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