Perfect Portrait

Monday, May 11, 2020

At last, my deep passion again is alive for the few great films that can tap fully into a viewer’s vision, intellect, and feelings. It’s because of a new film streaming on Hulu, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”. This work is well-scripted, -directed, -photographed, and -performed. The film might be perfect. It’s spoken in French with subtitles. New to me is the writer/director, Céline Sciamma, whose catalog of work I intend to explore.

Maybe this isn’t a film for everyone. It’s a woman’s story, set in the late 1700s when few women had any independent rights or a path toward having income, unless she had a husband. The primary four characters are a painter, a promised bride, a housemaid, and the bride-to-be’s mother. The mother wants a portrait to present to the daughter’s suitor, a Milanese nobleman. In those days, a well-married daughter can stabilize a family’s finances.

This daughter will replace as a bride her older sister who, refusing to marry, committed suicide. This daughter is objecting and has refused to pose for a portrait. A male artist failing to capture her has departed. The mother now hires a woman, asking her to pretend to be a “walking companion” to the daughter. This will let the artist secretly observe her subject and paint the portrait.

The woman artist is cultured and relatively independent (she’ll ultimately inherit her father’s successful art gallery). She’s very talented and does manage to produce a painting. When it’s seen by the intended bride, she becomes angry over the secrecy and portrait. That painting is decent, but uninhabited by reality and disappoints. Here’s where the story pivots.

The mother wants to fire this painter, but the bride declares suddenly that she will pose. Thus, the painter stays and will work during a period when the mother is away traveling. This leaves on their own three young women, the painter, the bride, and a housemaid. The portrait painting continues, now with both artist and model. All three women become casual housemates, equal without rank, cooking for and reading to one another. The housemaid is pregnant and the others help her try lose the baby. Ultimately, all three become involved in a typical 18th Century abortion process.

A deep closeness between the painter and subject turns into a beautifully presented love story, with each bringing the other more alive. They’re a creative, spontaneous, joyful couple.

I’ll leave it there, but will add that I’ve re-watched this film, several times. I’ve wanted to absorb better its dialogue, lighting, and mood, and wanted to comprehend and sort its multiple themes. A film that attracts me so greatly is one I recommend without reservations to other serious viewers.

Tap on this link for the New York Times review:

Dear Friends: The upshot is that it pays to thumb often through our streaming options. Diana

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s