Derik Badman's Journal

2020-06-14 10:47

I rewatched Celine Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire this morning (it's currently on Hulu), and it was totally worth the second viewing. While there were less surprises in plot this time, I was more able to pay attention to the camera and the faces and the foreshadowing and the larger ways the plot and theme connected together.

I noticed more this time how much the start of the film is like a gothic novel. A woman, Marianne, a painter, we learn, arrives on a deserted beach and is left to walk to a dark house. The servant who answers the door doesn't greet her, just let's her in and leads her by the light of a single candle to a large room with cloth draped over numerous objects. Later Marianne wanders down to the kitchen in the dark looking for food. It's all a bit mysterious at first, dark and foreboding. When we learn that the eldest daughter died on the cliffs, possibly a suicide, it fits in with that genre. But then the plot starts shifting to romance, a forbidden one, but the gothic elements do not totally disappear. Marianne has a few visions of Heloise, the woman she is painting, standing in a white ghostly robe.

Sciamma uses a lot of slow reveals to play with expectation. Marianne is going to paint Heloise in a green dress, but Heloise was resistent to the portrait, so Marianne is expected to do it secretly. In one cut we see the bottom hem of the green dress, with shoes sticking out from beneath it walking... is Heloise wearing the dress? The camera moves up and we see the servant girl is just walking carrying the dress in front of her. A later scene finds the three woman in the kitchen in front the cooking hearth, behind a large table, we see only the lower half of the servant girl, her feet hanging limply in the air... it's a classic shot of a hanging by suicide, yet, after a moment, the feet move and place themselves back in the stool behind them (she is hanging from something as part of an attempt to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, I'm not totally clear on the logic).

I really appreciated this time how much work Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel's faces do throughout the movie to carry emotion and communication. Especially early on, so much goes unsaid in words, but is conveyed by their facial expressions, and that's doubly important because of how much the plot revolves around looking and seeing.

In one lovely little shot, there is a cut to a field of tall grass, devoid of people, until all at once all three protagonists, pop up into view. They are out searching for a plant of some kind (again related to the unwanted pregnancy). It's a delightful little jolt. Another beautiful shot has all three silhouetted against the night sky, walking along a ridge in their voluminous cloaks and coats. It's mysterious and silent, as they head to a gathering of woman around a bonfire.

(I wrote about my first viewing in the theatre way back on March 1 2020).