Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma. 2019. 1h59m. # TIFF
Winner of the Cannes prize for best screenplay, Portrait finally made its way to Japan, further signaling the gulf between Japanese audiences and contemporary French cinema. A decade or two ago, Tokyo distributors would have rushed to pick up this film that would in turn have found an audience.
Another example of a productive relationship between filmmaker and performer, here actress Adèle Haenel whom Sciamma introduced in 2007 in her film Water Lilies, Portrait explores the sinuous means art is able to find in depicting love… in the 18th century. Imagining such a tale set within the world of contemporary art would be doomed from the start and as such the film points to an extensive set of agendas. Starting with the immediate narrative objective of deception and displacement that signals how romance theory informs each scene. The story sees a mother commission a woman painter (Noemie Merlant) to do a portrait of her daughter (Haenel). The painting is to be sent to a wealthy Milanese suitor, expected to marry her, so that he may witness her beauty. The daughter is already a replacement, that of an older sister who committed suicide. The mother pulls her out of the convent, but she will neither agree to this wedding; this is communicated in moments in which we see her standing too near a cliff’s edge or like Bruce Dern in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home going a little too far in the ocean… She can’t leave home, living on an island in Brittany.
The mother has the painter play a role, that of companion to the daughter, and when night comes, she will have to remember expression, pose, and lighting. The daily proximity and the nights leaving little else to consider, the painter falls in love with her model. Which allows Sciamma to move forward with the film’s activism, with the daughter refusing to be married off and embarking on a relationship that adds to the secrets the painter is expected to keep, and ultimately can’t. Except for the men who bring the painter to the island in the film’s opening, with her canvas going overboard and her swimming to save it, Portrait is very much about the absence of men, notably that of the suitor. It is however about sisters and what art does to that relationship, how it reconciles. Which makes one recall François Truffaut’s extraordinary Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, a film borne of suffering after the end of his two-year relationship with Catherine Deneuve. Adapted from the other novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the author of Jules & Jim, the film, set in 1899, had two British sisters, one of them an artist, fall into a relationship with the same man. As in all of Truffaut’s films, always about men who love women, it is the woman who emerges as the stronger figure, though not always without circumnavigating expected French stereotypes, characters played by Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Bernadette Laffont, Nathalie Baye and Fanny Ardant…
Some fifty years later, Sciamma did her own period piece that speaks very much to her era, rather than herself (the therapeutic use of cinema in the case of Truffaut). Portrait of a Lady on Fire would also become a symbol of resistance within the French film industry, with Adèle Haenel walking out of the Césars ceremony (the French ‘Oscar’) after Roman Polanski had won a number of prizes including best film. She has also joined forces with stage director Gisèle Vienne, whose work has been performed in Tokyo, forming a new powerhouse couple that awaits the end of confinement. Like being able to get off the island.
In the absence of men, the film provides an alternative to the all-too-familiar painter-model dynamic. From the beginning, the model (the daughter) is not where she should be. She’s outside the studio, away from the easel. The painter has no right to control her body, instructing her how to pose or defining her better-looking side. Instead, her maid and the painter have to be her substitutes. In order to recall the model’s look, the painter looks at herself in the mirror (a usual technique for self-portrait), seeing herself in the gorgeous dress which is apparently not her style, which recalls the arranged marriage. Seeing herself in her client’s destiny brings about the very first moment of empathy. When the painter and the model are both in the studio, they’d exchange perspectives and challenge each other, maintaining an equal relationship although each is bound by their own position. This echoes the stage when the two get closer to each other and the affection between them manifests itself. In the scene of staging the maid’s abortion for painting, this time the painter-model relationship transforms into a director-painter-model one, symbolizing the sisters’ bonding, commemoration and enlightenment. Till the end, the painter-model relationship is deconstructed, as they break the commission and draw intimate keepsakes as pure lovers with their eyes on each other and themselves. This abscense of the power structure is, of course, also part of the film’s activism.
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