Portrait of a Lady on Fire
I went to the cinema last night and saw the Portrait of a lady on fire ( by Céline Sciamma 2019). Although being billed as being a ‘lesbian film’ I still went with a completely open mind. From what I garnered from the cinema bumf, it’s a story set in 1770, and about a female artist (Marianne) engaged to paint a portrait of a soon to be married reluctant woman (Héloise) who had previously been a nun in a convent.
Even if others who I spoke to thought it was slow in build up, I personally was completely captivated by the whole process. This painter going to a desolate island, in the effort of making a picture of an unwilling subject.
I was intrigued by the quirkiness of the relationship which built up between the three women; Marianne, Héloise and the maid. Perhaps making some subtle observation of treatment of women in that period of history: Héloise being forced into a marriage with a man she did not know, the maid’s unwanted pregnancy and her efforts of control over her own body.
However, for me a film is a little like the experience of meditation or hypnosis. It’s all about being lulled into a state of unquestioning acceptance of what you are having suggested. To be fed into your subconscious, not analysed by the conscious.
It was a nice touch when Marianne played the clavier or spinet, and she couldn’t manage the descending scale passage (from Vivaldi’s storm). But, and a very big but. Even if it were theoretically possible that an female working artist had heard of Vivaldi’s music in 1770, it would have been extremely unlikely (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concertos did not become famous until the 1950s with the advent of the gramophone record). And so, rather than a nice touch in the sequence of events which would deepen the two women’s relationship together, I was jogged out of the dream world and into reality and the obvious question of, ‘Why this music?’ And the answer appears all too readily. It is a cheap devise used by modern film makers (particularly of romantic comedy) to associate their work to something already considered of quality (as with music) which then rubs off positively on the film. In the same way that a TV ad uses a famous person to sell their product. Despite this, for me the spell was still not broken.
What did break the spell completely was in the scene where the three protagonists go to a women’s meeting on a hill, to see if the maid was indeed pregnant. Here the peasant women began singing spontaneously. Why oh why, if Marianne couldn’t play a scale properly on the spinet, were these peasant women singing so virtuosically!! Moreover, this music was more like Philip Glass or Michael Nyman than any music which could have perceivably be sung in that situation. Bad decision by Céline Sciamma, because rather than showing off the brilliance of her musicians Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini, she broke the spell [perhaps the music might have worked as background, but not as part of the acting]. And when the spell is broken you start asking questions.
Why did she jump into the sea to rescue her box? Why not one of the men? (To show she was a passionate artist). Why did the man dump her belongings on the beach? (To show patriarchal society, she is a strong woman, and men are shits).Why so much attention to the maid’s abortion? (political statement to say women look after themselves?) And many others as well. And finally why was it Vivaldi’s Four Seasons being played in the theatre when Vivaldi was not well know for his instrumental music, but if anything his sacred works.
When you realise that Vivaldi ran a female orchestra whilst working at an orphanage, things start falling into place. Vivaldi was chosen for his perceived being female friendly and the ‘Notting Hill’ effect, thus aiding the film from two angles.
I personally like a bit of female kissing and cuddling (I’m a man! – and I am being deliberately provocative!) but, although the film had a beautiful setting and was a nice idea, it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. It seems to have had too many political agendas of the #MeToo type, and so shot itself in the foot. Surely a difficult film to make, but for me it would have worked if it hadn’t tried so hard to manipulate the outcome but just told a simple story.