At the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I caught myself mimicking the facial expressions of the final sequence. I was intoxicated by the film! I was literally transformed! And the ways in which art and erotic desire transform the body are the central concerns of director Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature film, a French period piece about the romance between two women, the painter Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) and the reluctant scion Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel). Portrait of a Lady is front to back a perfect film, every sound and image focused on producing a marvelously new way of portraying lesbian desire.
So how should I speak specifically about the film? Do I reveal too much about the plot, the turns of which offer constant surprise? No— I can merely say that the film elaborates on the nature of longing and eroticism in so many twisting ways that it almost feels like a thriller. Do I mention certain emblematic scenes that characterize the uniformly wonderful performances? No— what would be the point when every actor at every moment expresses such a profound depth of feeling and sensitivity to the body? Perhaps I will mention the brilliant score, which combines classical pieces, mysterious sound cues, and one stand out original song at the centerpiece of the film. I might also mention the film’s cinematography, which is more than merely beautiful— it is expressive. I practically leapt from my seat the first time there were more than three people in a shot after 30 minutes of at most two in the frame. These are a few ways that I could speak about the film…
But really, what does this prosaic approach to film writing leave me with? Just a list of deferrals, for in speaking specifically I defer my responsibility to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma has done what the greatest filmmakers do: she has invented an entirely new mode of cinema language. In this case, that language speaks about lesbian desire, about the weight a series of glances can have, about the companionship of women and the way desire— our specific desires— connect us to the world.
Arty romantic dramas have spent the last 20 years responding to Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love. These range from Millennium Mambo’s crime story veneer to Moonlight’s reinterpretation of its motifs into a specifically black coming-of-age film (the high watermark of contemporary American filmmaking). In the Mood for Love has cast a long a shadow and produced an entire generation of films that learned how to capture the tectonic grind of unfulfilled desire. I love these films deeply, but allow me now to make a prediction: we are now looking at the beginning of a new era in the romantic drama. Now begins the generation of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.