Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Cadmium Orange Is the New Black

You fall in love with an artist, you’re gonna get burned. Photo courtesy of Pyramide Films

Every year Hollywood imports a new French lesbian movie. I usually run in the opposite direction because of all the whispering-in-bed scenes and pained longing you can’t feel because you’re too busy reading novel-length subtitles. And I mean, if no one’s going to eat jizz off a peach, why did I sit through all that?

However…wow. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is close to perfection.

You do have to get past the too-obvious title (the French version is more nuanced about the Henry James reference), and there will be times when someone in the throes of passion will say (whisper) lines like “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” It’s a French movie, they can’t help themselves.

But you’ll be rewarded with an exquisitely composed, beautifully shot, subtly acted film where nothing is wasted and emotions are allowed to resonate in stillness, unlike Hollywood films that push us into every feel with music cues and histrionics. 

The plot is simple, and focusing on it is hard at first because you’re drooling over all the props. The piano with the colors reversed on the keys – the big ones are ebony and the little ones are ivory – is to die for, even though it might confuse pianists other than Stevie Wonder. And though each of the four women who occupy the perfectly aged stone villa only have one dress, you never get tired of looking at those four dresses. 

Things kick off with a painter who looks exactly like Emma Watson arriving at the remote sea-swept villa to paint a betrothal portrait of a young woman we learn is an impossible subject. The previous painter was driven to wipe the woman’s entire head off his attempt and run screaming, so we’re primed for her reveal, and it is teased out in a series of wonderfully clever bits of staging.

The movie is full of brilliant narrative details like this, and they aren’t all pretty either. Did you know that 18thCentury abortions entailed playing Red Rover Red Rover on a beach, then drinking weed tea while hanging from the ceiling, and finally having a homemade exfoliate mask spread inside your hoohah while you hold a baby’s hand? Don’t get any ideas, Alabama.

Men appear only in the first five and last five minutes of the film, so we don’t know how the pregnancy could have happened, but it’s not one of the lesbians, so don’t worry, their relationship doesn’t get messy in that way. Haha.

There’s a lot of brush-stroking on canvas close-ups, which we all get mesmerized by, admit it, and lots of scenes set in the rustic kitchen so that the persimmons and blocks of chevre can have their moment in the chiaroscuro.

There are plenty movies that sound really good when described and turn out to be awful when they get up on screen. And there are movies that can sound like an eye-roller when described but prove to be amazing. That kind of save is all about smart choices and superb effort by everyone involved, none more so than the director.

So my hat is off to director – and also screenwriter, damn girl! – Celine Sciamma. She’s the real lady on fire here.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in limited release on December 6.

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