Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most perfect love stories I have ever seen on film. It’s a vessel of desire on a slow-moving stream that becomes ever-wider, ever more powerful, and when the story ends, as it must, the water does not stop.
So much comes from seeing and being seen, from listening and being heard, and from taking the time to let that happen. The pace of our lives today isn’t well suited to this, but it can happen. Choosing to sit in silent presence with someone is truly possible, but intention is required. Also, it makes a difference where you are. And who you are.
The filmmaker, Céline Sciamma, assembled a cast of women, only women, except for the boatsmen at the beginning and a messenger at the end, and the breathtaking rocky seacoast is one I have known intimately for more than twenty years—Quiberon, in Brittany. Every time I go there, it makes me listen to my core and enter slow time. She chose wisely.
I have written music for the theatre in much the same way as is done for film, and I am skilled at making it do its work without calling attention to itself. But here, in this film, the sound score is nothing more than the natural sounds—until halfway through, when something startling erupts from a circle of village women around a bonfire. And then again, at the end, when a full-bore orchestral performance of Vivaldi lifts both central chracters out of the performance they are hearing into the stream of their loves’ memory.
For me, the love story between women was a choice like every other in this film: empowering. Because the relationships are one step outside most of my own experience, but both perfectly natural and inevitable, I paid attention in a more immediate way. When we staged The Tempest with life-sized puppets, audiences invariably began their comments with “Oh . . . that kiss!” It was the first love-commitment between Ferdinand and Miranda, slow and delicate, followed by the well-known startle of “what have I done” that made a sweet comic zing—but it was between inanimate objects. Inanimate, made more than animate. And the fact that the audience knew it was puppets made their response magnitudes more personal.
Because the whole film is so perfectly integrated and allows the time for real seeing and real hearing to happen, the impact is large and luminous. I believe in love, in its sweetness and in its grief, and seeing this was a gift of confirmation.