Just got out of seeing Celine Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was really really good, beautifully filmed, the two lead actresses are amazing. The kind of movie you actually feel as you're watching it. To a certain extent you know how it's going to go narratively, but still it kept surprising me with how it handled the story, and it didn't take an easy way out at the end. Basically it's about a woman, a painter, sent to paint the portrait of another young woman, so the portrait can be sent to her perspective husband (it's the 18th century). The women fall in love, and you know she's going to have to leave and get married, and it could have easily ended with a "they never see each other again type narrative" or could have ended with some kind of reunion meeting at some point and it does kind of but in a way that didn't feel cliched or tired, but also was really moving, powerful to feel at the end. Another one that got a lot of good word from critics. I feel like I heard about it months ago at first and it definitely lived up to the hype and actually I liked it even more than I expected. I thought it might be a good movie and it turned out to be a really excellent one, so that's an great way to end my weekend or start my week I guess.
I've been walking home and it's maybe 5 or more minutes later and I still kind of feel like I'm about to cry over the movie.
[Two days later...]
That's a slightly cleaned up version of what I dictated when I walked home after the movie.
I felt a lot of the pathos of the narrative comes from knowing how certain plot elements will go, though still be surprised in the specifics. The one woman is going to go off to get married, she doesn't have a choice in the matter. At one point, the one woman is reading to the other along with the maid of the house. It quickly became apparent, she's reading a version of the Orpheus myth (later we see the book close up and it's a French version of Ovid's Metamorphoses). As soon as I realized that, I felt a kick, knowing that there would come a point in the narrative where the painter would be leaving, would turn to look back at her love and then she would be gone. Sciamma weaves that concept into the subsequent parts of the tale quite effectively.
The movie is also very much about looking and seeing. The painter is, at first, trying to paint the other woman without her sitting for the potrait, so she must observe her in the moment as they walk around the landscape, and then sketch what she's seen later. This looking of course becomes part of the eroticism, the attraction between the women. Then, later, when she agrees to pose for the portrait, the looking becomes more clearly reciprocal and probing. How have they been seeing each other? What do they see?
The painting and drawing sequences were handled skillfully. You never see the painter standing in front of the easel, painting. There is none of that weird trickery where the actress stands in front of a half done painting and then moves a pencil or brush around. All the images of painting and drawing as process (and there are quite a few) are shown as full screen of the paper/canvas with just a hand and tool. In this way they have an actual artist drawing or painting (a woman is fourth in the credits as "avec le participation de"), allowing us to see the painting be built up from charcoal and a basecoat to a full fledged portrait. The paintings and drawings are a prime element of the narrative both as narrative driver and also as symbols of emotion, especially in part of the denouement.
There's a direction one could take to say there is a certain amount of cliche to the doomed 18th century romance plot that is the base of this film, but like most stories it's how that base plot is handled that really makes the difference and creates a unique variation. Sciamma succeeds at that admirable. The Criterion Channel has some of her previous films up, which I will have to watch.
Two days later I keep thinking about it.