Sometimes you watch a film with low expectations. It turns out to be a surprise. A good one. Like it’s come out of nowhere. Then, at other times, you watch a film that has great reviews and it doesn’t live up to the hype.
For me, Portrait of a Lady On Fire is the second one. Even now I’m struggling to think of something interesting to say about it. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad film. Not at all. It’s a fine film.
A painter comes to paint a portrait. There’s a love affair. That's the plot. Fair enough. It’s nice and simple. I like nice and simple. But it does feel like there should be a little more going on.
The location and French-ness of the film will appeal to Francophiles. To that Francophile middle-class English audience. The film is full of ‘lovely’. A lovely old house. Lovely coastal scenery. Lovely old clothes. Lovely bread and wine. A lovely rustic world. It’s all lovely.
I felt that the big romance in the story wasn’t really between the protagonists but between the viewer and all that ‘lovely’. And then there’s the appeal of history. A world without modern complication (apart from sexual equality and toleration), a world with no mobile phones, no internet, and no computer screens. It’s all lovely. Not particularly brilliant. But, nonetheless, still lovely. Like, A Year in Provence, it has the romance of French food, French people, and delving into a fantasy of history. It does feel like a fantasy version of history. The modern world imposed on the old. This is what historical fiction does though. I did feel that there should have been more sense of peril surrounding the relationship. The film really hinges on a codified sign that appears, later on, in a painting.
It’s probably a positive thing that a foreign language film can be released with two female leads, decent performances, nice scenery, and centre around a gay romance, but it did not really satisfy me as a story. Tonally, it plays on celebration rather than loss, and I am not sure if that maximises its dramatic potential.