Portrait of A Lady on Fire | GFC Review
Every Monday, 12 young film lovers head to our cinema under the stars at Lotterywest Films to take in the best international cinema has to offer.
As aspiring cinephiles, we wanted to know what they thought of the flicks.
Check out the review by Damon on the 2019 Cannes Film Festival Best Screenplay Winner, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
‘I could feel the air pressure changing as everyone in the audience let out a relieving gasp of air.’
Damn. It’s a movie like ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ that reminds me why I love film so much. It’s a movie and a story that is completely detached from my own experiences. 1800’s France. High class. A woman’s love story. All factors which on paper, are completely un-like my own. Yet, I finished the film speechless, with only tears. And I guess it’s time to try and turn those tears into meaningful words.
Period pieces can be difficult to get into. The world of 1800’s France and its extravagant costumes, locations and language is so disconnected from our own reality that it can create quite an alienating atmosphere. Therefore, it’s understandable why it can be difficult to connect emotionally to period films. Which is why ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is so marvellous. While the environment of the film is completely unlike my own, the human story and characters at its core created that universal feeling of love and romance which I could easily connect to.
I’ve found that some modern audience members believe that the word ‘slow’ is synonymous with the word ‘boring’. However, this film is the perfect example countering that idea, with Céline Sciamma intentionally creating a slow-moving film to effectively capture the feelings of our two main leads. However, this film is not boring in the slightest; with an excruciating tension occurring between our two main leads which is hard to not get invested into. The movie actually reminded me a lot of Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me by Your Name’ in that sense. Not only because both films follow a gay romance, but that both films take their time capturing that feeling of love. The films don’t rush anything, and the build-up to the characters expressing themselves to one another is exhausting to watch. When the character’s first kissed I could feel the air pressure changing as everyone in the audience let out a relieving gasp of air. The film’s patient pacing captures that slow feeling of falling for someone, the strong infatuation and then the eventual longing. Resulting in an amazing ending, mirroring that of ‘Call Me by Your Name’, with an eruption of emotion. This careful pacing was how that universal feeling of love was able to be created. During the film, I found it hard to not think about my own relationships. The ones I’ve loved, the one’s I’ve lost, and the one’s I still long for. This relatable feeling would have also not been created if it also wasn’t for the performances by the leading ladies leads. While it’s impressive how much both these women could emote, it is more impressive to see how much they were able to show how much they’re holding back. It’s a very realistic portrayal of having feelings for somebody, but not being able to show them.
The characters in the film are feeling the emotion of the music as well as the audience.
I was also impressed with the films use of silence. I love music, and I love how music can be used in film, but I’m always impressed when a film is able to succeed emotionally without using music. As well as being slow, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is also very quiet. Where the only music played in the film is music that actually plays in the film’s universe. The reason why I find this impressive is because music is commonly used as crutch in film to convey an emotion that the film couldn’t achieve through other techniques (e.g. acting, cinematography). For example, big action block-busters using intense music for poorly filmed action scenes to give the illusion that you’re watching something intense. Or a scene that’s trying to be sad but the scene is so emotionally flat, that a sad song is put over the top to try and trigger an emotional response from the audience. There is, of course, millions of examples of music being appropriately used in film. However, I find it all to frustrating when filmmakers use music as a cover-up for poor film-making. Which is why I love how Sciamma was able to use create an emotional gut-punch of a movie without needing to use manipulative music. And when the music does play in the film, its music that the characters are also hearing. Therefore, it isn’t cheap manipulation. The characters in the film are feeling the emotion of the music as well as the audience. You only need to look at that sensational final scene I was speaking about earlier as an example. If anything, it is the lack of music throughout the movie that makes the scenes where music does play that much more impactful. Another filmmaker could have easily paired the painting sequences with a classical score, but Sciamma intelligently left music out of those scenes, which brings up another detail about the film I was impressed with - and that’s the audio design.
The lack of music meant that sound had more of a presence during many key moments. Anyone who has tried to film something knows that audio is one of the most difficult and underappreciated aspects of filmmaking. Creating sound that feels authentic and clear in a film is no easy feat. Which is why I love how sound was used in this movie in an almost hypnotic way. The sound is incredibly immersive, with the cackles of the bonfires, or the strokes of paintbrushes (I hope I wasn’t the only way that got ASMR-like tingles during those painting sequences) helping engross yourself in the environment of the film. Which, as I said at the start, is an environment that is completely disconnected from our actual reality. Once again, another intelligent technique utilized by Sciamma to create an un-relatable story… relatable.
While I’ve said too much regarding the pacing and audio of the film, I have yet to still talk about the most impressive aspect of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, and that’s the visuals. This is probably the best looking 2019 film I’ve seen. The vibrant colours creates images which are impossible to not get lost in. I’m sure I’m not the only one to say this, but it’s a film about paintings that looks like a painting! And similar to a painting in which you can spend hours admiring the details, every frame of this film has something you can focus on. The patient pacing that I was speaking about earlier also gives the audience the time to admire and respect these images. I believe this is a movie about beauty, and the chiaroscuro lighting and framing of this film was able to capture the beauty of this story, the beauty of France, the beauty of romance and the beauty of these woman.
Sciamma showed clear love of woman and female love using the cinematography of this film. With the films lighting creating beautiful outlines and contours of the figures of these woman that genuinely feel like a brushstroke. Where if the movie was directed by a man, the treatment of these woman could have easily fallen into fetishization.
Like many others, I found it hard to put my feelings about this movie into words. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why you love something or someone. If anything, I think the tears I had at the end of the film was a good enough summary of my feelings. Unfortunately, I can’t communicate my inner feelings telepathically to you all so I hope this mess of words will suffice. I will be revisiting this movie, and I will be revisiting it soon. After seeing both this and Sciamma’s previous film ‘Girlhood’, she has now established herself as one of the most exciting filmmakers currently working. And even if the Golden Globes don’t like to award it, I hope more female directors get the chance to show their perspectives to the world.