Saturday, September 28, 2019

Female Gaze

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) - Sciamma
Talking about female gaze. It's all about that. Sciamma's period piece centers around two women. One, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait painter whose job is that of a photographer back then. The other, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), fresh plucked out of the convent to get married off to her dead sister’s Italian suitor that she’s never met. It was her mother (Valeria Golino)’s insistence that her portrait be painted and sent to Italy before the wedding. Marianne is supposed to be there for a week. In and out. A quickie.

Héloïse already refused to pose and to be painted by another portrait artist and sent him packing, leaving a creepy portrait painting without a face when Marianne arrives by the sea. But the mother insists on Marianne not telling Héloïse that she is there to paint her portrait, but paint her in secret from glimpses while acting as ‘walking companion’.

With their walks by the beach together, they get to know each other a little. Héloïse is understandably gloomy about her impending fate. Marianne sympathizes while trying to get glances of her subject of the painting. Marianne paints a portrait quickly in a week. But since she feels guilty of not informing her subject, she wants to show it to Héloïse before she says goodbye.
Héloïse’s reaction takes Marianne by surprise. She thinks it’s lifeless. It is not nice to assume that she knows the subject. Deeply offended and ashamed, she smears the painting and asks the mother to give her more time. Héloïse, now intrigued, volunteers to pose. They get 5 more days.

Whether it was due to Héloïse jumping into the ocean, Marianne's lascivious (but professional) glances or Marianne seeing Héloïse’s dress catching fire by the bonfire at the beach, they fall in love. They have only few days together and when they depart, their heart will break.

What’s remarkable about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its timelessness. This is not another tragic drama about women trapped by their circumstances. There is a joyful vivrancy about the film. They fully accept their fate, laid out by period and society. Yet they enjoy their few days together and remember it forever. It’s super life affirming and uplifting, rather than sad. Certainly one of the year’s best.