30 Best Films of the Past Decade: Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Powerful Meditation on Art and Desire (Female Gaze)

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I had an interesting argument a couple of weeks ago with a cherished colleague and friend, who’s also a film critic.  He claimed, based on his common sense, that during the Coronavirus pandemic, viewers wish to see escapist entertainment, sort of fluffy and undemanding fare, such as broad comedies, dazzling musicals, fast-paced actioners and adventures.

I have never fully subscribed to the escapist theory–in essence-, that in dreary times, audiences would opt for everything and anything that would let them forget for a few hours the surrounding grim reality.

When an international magazine asked for my choices of the great films of the past decade, I began to construct lists of films that have impressed me at their initial release, and have continued to linger in memory in terms of ideas, motifs, characters, images, and sounds.

For purposes of simplicity, my list of the 30 best movies of the past decade is presented alphabetically.  Obviously, the films reflect my taste as I look back and revisit them from a distance.  As such, they are inevitably singular and biased.  There’s no need to agree with my filmic hierarchy, but as a critic, it’s my duty and privilege to expose readers to films that they might not have seen upon initial release, or wish to revisit from a different viewpoint–with the privileged perspective of time.

13. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France, 2019)

Céline Sciamma wrote and directed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a singular French historical drama about the power of art and desire, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Set in France in the late 18th century, the film tells the story of a forbidden lesbian affair between an aristocrat and the artist who’s commissioned to paint her portrait.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest, where Sciamma won the Best Screenplay award.

The film premiered in the U.S. in limited release on December 6, 2019, and wide release February 14, 2020. Due to the pandemic crisis, the movie never got the spectatorship that it deserved. Claire Mathon won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Cinematography for her work on this film as well as Atlantics, a worthy movie that also premiered at Cannes Fest.

Marianne, a young painter teaching painting lessons, is provoked by a student’s question to relate the origins and social circumstances of her art work, “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu.”  Thus begins a journey back into memory lane of art and desire.

Years ago, upon arrival on an isolated island in Brittany, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman named Héloïse, about to be married off to a Milanese nobleman.

Marianne is informed right away that Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits, since she does not want to be married, but no one really understands her conduct.  We learn that Héloïse had been living in a convent before the suicide of her older sister, which necessitated her return home and her betrothal.

In order to be able to paint Héloïse, utmost secrecy is required, and so Marianne is formally hired as a companion, taking her madam for long walks, during which she studies Héloïse‘s finely modulated gestures.

Marianne finishes the portrait, but then, unable to betray Héloïse’s trust, she reveals her true reason. After Héloïse criticizes the painting, which she claims does not seem to portray her true nature, Marianne destroys it.

Shockingly, Héloïse is now willing to pose for Marianne, and while her mother leaves for Italy, the two femmes begin forming a special bond. One evening, they read the story of Orpheus and Eurydice while debating the reason why Orpheus turned around to look at his wife.

They help Sophie, a maid, have an abortion, and the three go to a bonfire gathering where women sing and dance, during which Héloïse’s dress briefly catches fire. Meanwhile, Marianne is haunted throughout the house by visions of Héloïse in a wedding dress.

The next day, Marianne and Heloise share their first kiss, and that night, passionately make love. Over the next few days, their romance grows stronger.

However, the illiict affair is cut short by the return of Héloïse’s mother. Marianne sketches drawings of each of them, and bids a short farewell. As Marianne runs out of the house, she hears Héloïse say, “Turn around.” She turns around and sees Héloïse in her wedding dress, appearing exactly as she did in Marianne’s visions.

Marianne then reveals to her students she saw Héloïse two more times. The first time was at a gallery in the form of a portrait, where Héloïse was shown with a child, holding a book open at page 28, recalling a self-portrait of Marianne she requested on that page.

The second time was at a concert, where Héloïse and Marianne sat across from one another. Although Héloïse did not notice Marianne, she was overwhelmed with emotion as the orchestra played the Presto segment of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which Marianne had previously played for her on a harpsichord.

A meticulous director, Sciamma takes her time in delineating the evolving bond between the two femmes. The first hour is a slow-burn probe into how their interaction is molded under confined circumstances, which are further constricting due to the initial vow of secrecy.  Most of the movie is necessarily set indoors and in the dark (or with limited lighting), but it never gets a claustrophobic experience.

Though there are no visible men in the story, their presence is strongly felt through the rule of patriarchy. The two women realize that their affair is doomed–a lesbian affair across social class in that era–yet they are determined to find expression for their yearning desire.

While the process of painting is in some ways liberating to both women, allowing them to be together and bond, the final result of it, the creation of an art work, inevitably makes for an insurmountable object between Marianne and Heloise.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers a field day to film theorists in general, and feminist scholars in particular.  The movie provides a good example of the act of looking–the gaze–only this time, both the looking and the subject looked on are female.  I can’t think of any American film, in which the act of female gazing is so delicately delineated, and so densely layered, through quiet yet steady glances that convey the joy, risk and mystery of visual pleasure.

Critical Status

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film by the Independent Spirit Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Golden Globe Awards. 

Cast
Noémie Merlant as Marianne
Adèle Haenel as Héloïse
Luàna Bajrami as Sophie
Valeria Golino as The Countess