Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Passion brews quietly between an artist and her subject, until they together create a space in which it can briefly flourish, in this sumptuous eighteenth-century romance from Céline Sciamma, one of contemporary French cinema’s most acclaimed auteurs. Summoned to an isolated seaside estate on a secret assignment, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) must find a way to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is resisting chattel marriage, by furtively observing her. What unfolds in exquisite tension is an exchange of sustained gazes in which the two women come to know each other’s gestures, expressions, and bodies with rapturous intimacy, ultimately forging a subversive creative collaboration as well as a delirious romance. Charged with a yearning that almost transcends time and space, Portrait of a Lady on Fire mines the emotional and artistic possibilities that emerge when women can freely live together and look at one another in a world without men.
The Criterion Collection presents one of 2019’s most acclaimed pictures, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. Criterion it using the film’s original 4K master as the source for the presentation.
Since the film was shot digitally there are no print issues to speak of, so we end up with a very clean-looking image, at least in that regard. In the supplements both Sciamma and director of photography Claire Mathon explain how they liked the look digital gave them in terms of colour and light (after experimenting with digital and 35mm film), feeling it gave the film the look of one of its paintings. Colours do look very good throughout, nice greens and blues in the brighter sequences, and gorgeous looking oranges and yellows in darker scenes (these colours coming primarily from candlelight or maybe a fireplace flame). Blacks are generally good, but depending on the lighting in low-lit scenes they can get a little murky.
Details are quite good, the textures of the canvas or the fabric of the costumes showing up clearly. There are some digital anomalies, though, and I’m not sure what the culprit really is. Banding pops up consistently throughout the film, though it can vary in degrees of severity. When it does show up it’s usually minor, the issue only becoming noticeable in some of the darker interior shots with the flickering of the candles giving it away. But the scene outside around the bonfire shows some hard-to-miss rings in the skyline. Since this was “filmed” digitally (in 4K) it is possible it’s inherent to the original files, but it could also be just part of whatever master Criterion was supplied with, or it could be an encoding issue. Whatever the case it is there and it can be obvious.
The film comes with a 5.1 surround track delivered in DTS-HD Master Audio. Most of the time it’s a quiet film that focuses primarily on a couple of characters talking in-doors. There might be a crackling fire in the background or some other sound effect, but that’s about it for the mix a lot of the time.
The track does have plenty of moments to shine, though, and it’s mostly during exterior sequences along the beach, with the waves of the water crashing in. These sounds are rich and loud and are mixed beautifully to fill out the surround environment, and it can sound like you’re actually there. The bonfire sequence, where a group of women break out singing, also sounds incredible, placing you right there with them. The final sequence of the film, involving a concert, also sounds great. Though long stretches are less showy it still manages to be a very dynamic track in the end.
As Criterion’s edition of Inside Llewyn Davis showed, they can do exceptional editions for newer films, but unfortunately this release feels more along the lines of something most studios would put together as the features consist of a handful of interviews.
The first interview featured is a 31-minute one between Sciamma and Dana Andrews, recorded for this edition. After talking about Sciamma’s earlier three films the two focus on Portrait of a Lady on Fire. They get into the film’s story, themes and politics, while also cover the challenging aspects Sciamma faced in making her first period piece, from costumes to props to the look. Most interesting (at least for me) is how the Orpheus/Eurydice element was added to the film. I thought that the legend, which ends up being a bit of a centerpiece in the film, was planned from the start, but it sounds like a happy little accident: she wanted to come up with a scene that would have been something like a “Netflix and Chill” of the time and ended up creating a scene where the characters talk about the story and look at it from a feminist angle, which led to that legend working into the storyline more prominently. It’s a good interview but it’s the material like that that proved more interesting.
Criterion has recorded new interviews with actors Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant (about 17-minutes), with two recounting how they worked together and with the film’s director, and how the film reflects today. Criterion also offers interviews recorded last year, including one with director of photography Claire Mathon and another with painter Hélène Delmaire. Mathon’s interview (running 18-minutes) is very technical as she gets into the decision on filming in digital and the lighting that was needed to get the appropriate look in exterior and interior shots (interiors using candles within the film).
Delmaire explains how Sciamma found her (which Sciamma mentions in her interview, and it was through Instagram of all places) and the level of stress that went into getting all the paintings needed for the film (depicting certain periods of completion) done, and also recalling the experience of having her hand filmed during the sketching/painting sequences. She also talks about her work and about art from the period depicted in the film, which includes information around the paints and colours used (her getting into how toxic colours could be reminded me of my one painting teacher who insisted we get real cadmium red, despite how toxic it is, because it’s not like we’re “going to eat it”). Of these three interviews I found Delmaire’s the most interesting because it offered a lot around the history of the artwork depicted in the film and I’m disappointed that Criterion didn’t see it worthwhile to include more material around this aspect of the film. I see Artificial Eye’s region B Blu-ray includes a lengthy documentary for Delmaire, running 55-minutes. This interview only runs 12-minutes.
The release then comes with an insert sporting the title artwork from the film prominently on one side and then a short essay by critic and curator Ela Bittencourt, offering the only scholarly slant to the release. Her essay ends up breaking down the film from its look to its themes and politics. Sadly, Criterion doesn’t include an audio commentary featuring the actors, director, and director of photography that is found on the region B Artificial Eye Blu-ray, nor the documentary on the paintings of Hélène Delmaire that I mentioned previously.
For a release of a new film it’s fine, but the lack of scholarly material, along with knowing there is other material out there, makes it feel a little middling.
It’s a nice edition for the film, though there’s more that could have been included in the supplements. The audio/video presentation is at least good, though some banding effects mar things a bit.