It’s strange to talk about love in a film review. It seems to be the object of universal pursuit, or rather, more frequently, the object of universal lamentation; yet few could articulate the shape or form it takes. Celine Sciamma, the kaleidoscopic director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, does not shy away from the description of the film as an exploration of love, the idea and philosophy of love, or even, to be about ‘sentimental education.’
One is reminded of the ancient Greek encouragement of homosexual dalliances between younger and more mature men as a form of education. But here, the gap between worldly or romantic experience is lessened by the fact that the two protagonists are somewhat equal in age. The film is a slow-burner, with much left unspoken and instead communicated through the ‘female gaze’. The artist pursues her subject whilst the subject invites her portrait-painter. The minimalist style characteristic of Sciamma allows maximum focus on the double ententes of the emotional ‘Cat and Mouse’ game to play out. Each gains more ground on the chess board through observation and better understanding of the other, while still succumbing to the passionate dawning of attraction.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire presents two hours of immersion in the delicate tapestry of a romantic dalliance that ultimately delights in its purity and sincerity: the Romantic ideal played out more on the canvas and in the beholders’ eyes than through words. Much has been made about the feminist statement of a lesbian film conspicuously lacking in male screen-time, but the universality of romantic harmony sparkles. It is a fascinating study of the unarticulated ways in which one falls in love and receives and gives love, and ultimately, how one lives out a long life ahead without the opportunity of living with one’s true beloved. The film is exquisitely optimistic in its portrayal of a life where characters do not live happily ever after upon discovering true love, but rather move on with the loss whilst cherishing the fleeting enlightenment and fulfilment.
The film, well-received at Cannes, avoids the usual qualities that detain the English from French cinema. It lacks the bombastic existential dialogues whilst disagreeing with the idea of profound and pervasive dread or doom. The scenery of Brittany, albeit austere compared to Mediterranean coasts, is pleasing to the eye; and the use of candles and camp fires in an 18th c. setting evokes a sense of romantic nostalgia. Despite the ever-present sense of inevitable loss, the film is fiercely present. The emotions are simmering beneath the surface, eventually bursting out to offer a tender portrayal of two souls united in love.
One may never love or perhaps one may get to love happily for the rest of their life. But even if these moments are only fleeting, it is still possible to appreciate the joy. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film one may revisit many times, only to indulge in its exquisite artistry and delicious moments of discovery. I am still transfixed with the scene where Heloise tells Marianne: ‘In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.’