Retrato de Una Mujer en Llamas

(Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
Céline Sciamma, France, 2019

I found it hard to follow the subtitles for this one, so I missed a lot of the dialogue and the subtext. Massive shame – I might have to try and catch it with English subtitles, because there was a lot going on. So my appreciation of it was more visual than cerebral, but luckily it’s a beautiful film.

Sensual and smooth and creamy, like an 18th century oil painting. But also quiet, stripped down and pensive. Every shot is framed like a painting. We have four women: an artist commissioned to secretly paint a young woman by the woman’s mother, and the maid who works in the isolated house. The (very bare) house is on a (sparsely populated) island; the nearby clifftop, beach and sea are wild and untamed. It feels like a transitional, liminal place – representative of the artist’s freedom (she is financially independent!), the young woman’s time between convent life and marriage, and the maid’s early, then terminated, pregnancy. The setting is constant but they are all much changed.

At the centre of it all is the female gaze, and it’s the women’s faces that I can’t get out of my head. A different conception of female beauty is presented. The three lead actors have faces like oil paintings – characterful and unblemished, and most importantly unadorned. No make-up. No jewellery even. Yet endlessly fascinating and, so, naturally beautiful. The filmmaker frames them close and lights them by firelight, candlelight or daylight, with the effect of a gentle caress. The final shot of a woman’s face crumpling into emotion, prompted by the beauty of music but encapsulating the sadness of loss, capped it all off perfectly. Valeria Golino has a smaller part, and her misplaced face (with make-up?) really stood out; she’s great, and older of course, but I thought her face just didn’t fit the period or the mood.

Reading the reviews afterwards, one compared and contrasted it with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film about the male gaze and one that includes a portrait artist. I also thought of Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner – the film often lingered on the technique of painting with oils and drawing with charcoal. How an image is built up slowly with a series of careful, well-placed strokes. It certainly would make an excellent double (triple?!) bill.

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