“Portrait of A Lady On Fire” is Beautiful, But Dull (Contains Spoilers)
I know, I know. I was late to watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I had heard great things, I had thought of watching it in theatres while I was in Ireland, but didn’t. It seemed too serious for my usual tastes. I will admit period dramas aren’t really my thing, except for Pride and Prejudice (2005), yes, it is because I have crush on Keira Knightly (can you blame me?). I generally prefer my romances with a bit more comedy.
Since I’m going to be controversial by, well being critical of a critically acclaimed film, I might as go for it and say that I felt similarly to this film as I did to Call Me By Your Name, that is, it had beautiful cinamatography, but I felt a bit bored by it and disapointed by the ending. Also, if you don’t speak French, you will have to read a lot of subtitles. I was able to catch only a few phrases from my French class education. There were camera shots of Heloise and Marianne at beach, that had parellels to great paintings, like that of John William Waterhouse. I also enjoyed the historical costumes, and the painting that made me long for my own lady muse.
The basic plot is that Marianne is hired by Heliose’s mother to secretly paint a portrait of Heliose, under the guise of her walking companion, for her fiance, because she won’t pose for the portrait. Then, Marianne and Heliose fall in love. The problem with this kind of romance drama is that the attempt at realism forces the romantic plot into slow burn, which I occasionally enjoy reading, but is somehow painful to watch onscreen, as characters awkwardly get to know each other and then when it’s an LGBT+ period drama, continously repress their feelings for each other. When they finally do have sex, it’s only to soon that they must be separated. They know that their love is fleeting, and they learn that they must accept this.
It is a trope that is increasingly frustrating to see in LGBT+ films. I know, historically as an LGBT+ couple they couldn’t publicly be in a relationship with each other, but I kept hoping that would run away together. This is revisionist thinking, though sometimes I think we need more revisonism. That’s not to say we should forgot our past, just that has been pointed out the choice for many sapphic films to be historical means that for the purposes of accuracy, sapphic couples in period dramas usually don’t get happy endings. I know that this sad ending problem isn’t exclusive to sapphic media (bury your gays affects queer men and straight trans characters too) although the period drama problems seems a bit more particular to it.
I would recommend the film to those who like period dramas, especially for the cinematography, and also if you are looking for a sapphic film. Just be aware that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a more romantic tragedy, than the rom-coms I love. So if you’re looking for a happy ending, look elsewhere.