Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a great film. I think more than anything I enjoyed it because it felt so different. Yes, French painting and romance and a dramatic craggy coast suggest a formula, but the reality is that these elements served a higher purpose than simply a love story: they worked in tandem with a great script and thoughtful camera work to produce a surprisingly humorous and touching story not only of romance, but of women and (even as the word feels cliché) sisterhood.
Disclaimer: Though this is an LGBTQ+ story, I recognize that it still speaks to a specific privilege both socioeconomic and racial. There are blind spots in this story, as the understanding of the oppression of one group does not erase the class struggles and other racial inequities present. I still think that this film is worth enjoying, though, because it still speaks broadly to oppression/repression and historic positioning of non-heteronormative sexuality is important.
What most threw me off seeing this film (in a good way!) was the distinct voice of the director and the writing. This film did take itself seriously but at times allowed for some really refreshing comedic moments. These ranged from quippy dialogue to visually clever shots, always keeping me engaged and quite honestly adding a level of unpredictability to the tone. Entering a scene, you never really knew what its purpose was, which was really intriguing in what previously appeared to me to be a straightforward romance.
What was most touching about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is how, for a fair portion of the movie, the main characters are allowed to simply be happy. The audience watches as the two central figures are left to their own devices with the young maid of the house. What results is a really sweet portrait of feminine domesticity–not in terms of a gender role, but rather as a group of women living coexisting in a beautiful way. Of course, there are problems and arguments that arise, but really the three women function as a symbiotic family. Scenes of everyday life are permitted to breathe, taking their sweet time and creating in the viewer this unique feminine vision of harmony, wholly undramatic and wholly human.
I say feminine because the reality is that there are hardly any men acting in this film. It seems as though all the problems in the film, both societal and personal, stem from some unnamed man off screen. And I’m alright with that. I think it is a really interesting way, ultimately, to make a story about women and their real issues without having to explicitly involve the oppressors.
This film speaks to intense internal struggles while also highlighting the beauty and joy that can exist simultaneously with said struggles. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re an artist (those painting shots were gave me such vicarious joy as a painter without access to a studio). If anything, the film is worth it for a beautiful closing long take, one that will long remain in my mind.