Reviewing the Arts by UNSW Student Diego Garcia

11 Jul 2019

A Review to Portrait de la jeune fille en feu by Diego Garcia

The Reviewing the Arts course at UNSW allows students to explore a variety of writing modes in arts journalism, including interviews, previews and reviews. The following film review was written by current UNSW student Diego Garcia as part of our partnership with the 2019 Sydney Film Festival.

We are in an art class watching the pupils - my hands mimic theirs, swiping at a notebook in the dark. The instructor, our protagonist, is talking about how to paint faces and we see a flashback prompted by an old painting of hers brought out by a curious student - it is a portrait of a lady on fire. As part of the Sydney Film Festival (SFF), on the 17th of June, I settled down to watch Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) by Céline Sciamma that had occasional glitches and white patches that I can only term as a projection error. This film did not turn out to be what I thought it would, and I quickly forgot about the glitches as the film enveloped me.

I perused a synopsis that reads something like “rich French girl in 1700s falls in love with a girl,” and I was steeling myself to watch some people get oppressed and interact with their trauma. However, there were almost no men in the movie, and since most of the oppression and trauma conjured by the 1700s has to do with men, what A Portrait presents is a peek into the best-kept open secrets of womanhood from the period: midnight woodland feasts, cross-social class community, autonomy. The total lack of significant male presence was naturalized and inconspicuous during the film, but the fresh air it brought to the movie sets it apart.

Being a French film, there was a lot of intense looking. Looking at nature, gazing at each other, gazing at the audience. Gaze is loaded in this film and it’s part of what holds long moments of tension together despite a lack of soundtrack, which, like the men, wasn’t in the picture.

For the most part this film is focussed and precise in all aspects, from the camera work to the narrative. However, there is a glaring tonal inconsistency in the use of the ‘vision of a lady in a white dress’ as a supernatural trope that shatters the world of the movie where there is no other hint of magic, ghosts or the supernatural. It also uses an overplayed piece of classical music (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) as part of a diegetic concert that supports the last major plot point of the film. The extremely minimal use of soundtrack which served the movie really well up to this point, only exacerbated and emphasized the unfortunate break in the fourth wall that this final scene caused.

The artist falling in love with their subject is an old tale, and the prolific use of Greek myth and allegory in the film alludes to this fact, while also prompting a reconsideration of those ancient stories which are seen in a totally new light. This movie questions the motivations of the classic hero - are they as selfless as they seem? And it goes full circle to suggest that maybe being selfish and looking after oneself is a selfless act, in a way.

Just like it’s characters, A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an open secret. We want to find out the truth and unravel a mystery, but the drama is in the complexity and pacing of the narrative, not in deceit. The foreshadowing prompts you to focus on moods, themes and archetypes rather than upcoming story points or narrative beats.

This film is memorable - not because it is controversial or shocking, but because it is a really good work of art.