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Portrait of a Lady on Fire
"Is that how you see me?"
"It's not only me."
"What do you mean, not only you?"
"There are rules, conventions, ideas."
"You mean there's no life? No presence?"
"Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth."
"Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep. The fact it isn't close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn't close to you."
That Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait is nothing unusual; this is how she's able to eke out a living as an artist in an era when female painters were summarily disregarded. It's the nature of the assignment that's unique, given that Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) refuses to pose. This bridal portrait is intended not for her but for a wealthy Milanese nobleman she's never so much as met. That arranged marriage too has been forced upon Héloïse, who was pulled from a Benedictine convent to take the place of her late sister at the altar. Marianne has been instructed to pose as a walking companion for Héloïse, sneaking glances and painting from memory as best she can in secret. The artist's gaze is soon returned. The deception falls. Héloïse, once an unknowing subject, becomes an active participant in Marianne's art, and she soon comes to mean so much more.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, at its core, a story of sisterhood. Though there are no male roles of any consequence, the dominance of the patriarchy still influences every element of the film. And yet when the last vestige of male power leaves this remote island – Héloïse's mother (Valeria Golino), who sees her daughter as an asset to secure wealth and comfort in a man's world – everything changes. The lines that had previously delineated roles – between artist and muse, between servant and mistress – are now blurred. Héloïse compels Marianne to start anew, on a portrait that more accurately reflects the artist as well as its subject. Despite the traditionally subservient role of young Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) in the châteaux, Marianne and Héloïse treat her as an equal. Her struggles are their struggles, such that – as discussed in this disc's extras – the act of abortion proves to be a collaborative effort.
And it too is in equality that Héloïse and Marianne are able to fall in love. Each evokes the best from the other. Marianne is able to dispense with the rigidity that conventions had demanded of her art. Héloïse had long kept others at arm's length, and the walls she'd erected to shield herself are, at least for a time, no longer needed. Their love stems from a sincere appreciation rather than a compulsion to possess. Sex is not presented as some sort of victory or inevitability. The lack of those sorts of power dynamics is rather the point, and it follows that the physical displays of their affection are sensual and erotic without coming across as exploitative.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in every way masterfully crafted. The film wields a rarely rivaled capacity to allow the audience to escape onto this intimate, idyllic island, particularly in the way it dispenses with a score to better emphasize atmospherics and the most slight of interactions. Much of its power derives from quiet glances, subtle gestures, and sudden smiles, informing these characters and the bonds that connect them more effectively than reams of dialogue ever could. At no point do these three women feel as if they're being batted around by the machinations of a screenplay, nor is there any need to settle for the sorts of contrived conflicts that most other filmmakers would undoubtedly have introduced if offered the same material. The point isn't to introduce some threat that will tear Marianne and Héloïse apart; the allure is in watching the evolution of their relationship in what time remains for the two of them. Recurring throughout Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and it's tightly woven into the film in a great many ways – most critically a unique perspective I'd never considered, no matter how often I've seen the myth translated to film. And words can scarcely convey just how visually dazzling the film is, photographed with a keen eye and painterly instincts that would've left any artist of Marianne's era awestruck:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a magnificent celebration of art as well as a rightly revered work in its own right. The film honors the ways in which love, if approached on equal footing and with honesty, can help us realize our best selves. It recognizes that the true power of affection transcends proximity and possession. By any measure among the most extraordinary films of recent memory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a deeply rewarding experience heightened further by a stellar visual presentation on Blu-ray and the engaging, insightful interviews conducted by the team at Criterion. Highly Recommended.
There are shots too numerous to count throughout Portrait of a Lady on Fire where this Blu-ray release could easily be mistaken for Ultra HD. That's little wonder, given that the film was shot digitally in 8K and finished in 4K. Throughout Marianne and Héloïse's beachside walks in particular, I often found myself feeling as if I could discern every strand of hair, each individual grain of sand, and every blade of marram grass. The clarity and startling level of detail are a reminder of just how much Blu-ray as a format continues to offer:
Its painterly use of color is stunning, from the almost otherworldly blues of the sea to dazzling sunsets to achingly gorgeous costuming. Equally impressive is the contrast between interior shots that convincingly look to have been lit by candles and near-blinding cuts to the sun-drenched beach that awaits outside.
The image can struggle somewhat when it has less light at its disposal, however, as what I assume to be sensor noise becomes pronounced. Despite the healthy bitrate of Criterion's AVC encode – spanning both layers of this BD-50 disc – it doesn't adeptly handle this noise, resulting in compression artifacts and leaving Portrait of a Lady on Fire more digital in appearance:
This digital noise clumps together somewhat under particularly low light, and shadows can suffer from posterization:
Though hardly ruinous, this does detract somewhat from what is otherwise a reference quality presentation.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is lightly letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. And for those desperate to experience the film in 4K, whatever theatrical exhibitions may await in the months to come would appear to be the only option. There is no Ultra HD Blu-ray release anywhere the world over, nor is the film available in UHD as of this writing on VUDU, Prime Video, FandangoNow, iTunes, or Kaleidescape.
Presented in its original French – with a brief smattering of Italian – Portrait of a Lady on Fire's six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is nothing short of exceptional. The eschewing of a traditional score better emphasizes the intimacy and isolation that allow the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse to blossom – the snaps and cracks of logs burning in a fireplace, impassioned breaths, charcoal colliding with canvas and paper, the persistent chirping of insects outdoors, mighty gusts of wind, and the crash of waves by the beach and below the cliffs – and the result is wonderfully immersive. The film's diegetic approach ensures that its use of music proves all the more impactful, from the resonance of a harpsichord's strings to a soaring chorus around a bonfire. The final moments of Portrait of a Lady on Fire would wield but a fraction of its power if the film had been scored conventionally.
There is at least one moment in which Criterion's English subtitles differ from those on Hulu – and, reportedly, theatrical exhibitions and the British Blu-ray release. Here, Héloïse's dialogue is accompanied by "in solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt I missed you." The Hulu presentation instead reads "in solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence." It's not immediately clear how pervasive these sorts of differences are. Comparing excerpts from four other sequences, selected at random, the subtitles were a precise match. More exhaustive comparisons may reveal further disparities, but based on my sampling and admittedly limited familiarity with French, I'm not left with any cause for concern.
- Painting Love: Céline Sciamma on Portrait of a Lady on Fire (32 min.; HD): The centerpiece of the disc's extras is this half-hour conversation between director Céline Sciamma and film critic Dana Stevens. Gender politics are a driving force throughout the discussion, such as how the voice of female characters is too often absent in love stories, femininity itself being a performance of sorts, researching female painters all but erased from history, and how interwoven the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is throughout so many layers of the film. Sciamma also speaks to the discovery she sought to enjoy in the costume design of her first period piece, disinterested in collaborating with a designer already well-versed in period costuming and not letting herself be shackled by strictly recreating 18th century fashion. Among innumerable other highlights are writing Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be filmed off the coast of Brittany, upending the expected power dynamics throughout the playful casting process, discovering melody and musicality without relying on a score, and how the concluding scene of the film was the first to enter her mind.
- The Women of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (17 min.; HD): Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant speak about the sense of discovery on the set, having crafted their characters individually and avoided rehearsing with one another beforehand. This would lead to a sparring match of sorts in the moment, with the uncertainty about how one might deliver a line or choose to look at the other leading to a great many wonderful surprises – a relationship that proved to be "both smooth and rough-edged", as they put it. The two actors also discuss the artist's gaze, Héloïse's transition from subject to active participant, the three stages of Haenel's performance as the barriers her character has erected gradually fall, how sisterhood can transcend social hierarchies, what sets Portrait of a Lady on Fire's sex scene apart, and why this period piece resonates as it does today.
- Cinematography (18 min.; HD): Director of photography Claire Mathon delves into how she and Céline Sciamma crafted their own "2018th century", viewing the film's period setting through a contemporary lens. What was originally intended to be a 35mm production instead leveraged 8K digital photography. What most viewers would assume is purely natural light has been painstakingly shaped with a mix of conventional tungsten lights and iPad-controlled LEDs. Mathon brilliantly explains how technology has helped to realize her artistic vision – one that by design doesn't resemble a typical period piece and places a greater emphasis on Portrait of a Lady on Fire's characters. Also of interest is the visual inspiration drawn from Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot's portraits within landscapes, particularly the painter's reluctance to establish clear light direction and the way in which "the skin itself literally becomes light and color."
- Paintings (12 min.; HD): Céline Sciamma could've settled for a painter accustomed to mimicking styles of the period, but the director instead wanted a contemporary artist, and she found precisely that with Hélène Delmaire. The painter responsible for the art we see created on-screen throughout Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins this conversation by detailing her classical studies in Florence and how a series of paintings in which their subjects' eyes have been crossed out with a wide streak of paint coincidentally bear no small resemblance to the portrait that Marianne would later destroy. Serving as much as art history as a making-of featurette, Delmaire explains in compelling detail the techniques and materials of the period she embraced during filming. And, as is the case in cinematographer Claire Mathon's interview, the discussion isn't strictly on the mechanics of bringing her vision to life but in the mindset behind these decisions and what these specific techniques help to accomplish. It's also fascinating to hear how Delmaire's painting was captured, studied at great length by both the camera and by actress Noémie Merlant to inform her performance. Despite being the shortest of Portrait of a Lady on Fire's four interviews, I'd readily rank this as the disc's standout feature.
On one side of the enclosed pamphlet is the titular "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", along with a series of credits and details about the presentation. On the other is Ela Bittencourt's insightful essay "Daring to See". Among a great many other topics, Bittencourt draws parallels to Sciamma's earlier works, explores the reciprocity of the artist's gaze here, the opposing ambient forces so often on display, and the measure of freedom these women find in isolation, despite the authority of men remaining inescapable.
Also of note is that this disc doesn't feature the audio commentary from Artificial Eye's Blu-ray release on the other side of the Atlantic, nor is the nearly hour-long documentary on Hélène Delmaire included.
The Final Word
Céline Sciamma's quiet, intimate tale of art, love, sisterhood, and memory is richly deserving of its place in the Criterion Collection. And it has indeed been lavished with a Blu-ray release to match, with a feature-length assortment of compelling interviews, immersive lossless audio, and one of the most striking visual presentations I've experienced on the format in a great while. Highly Recommended.