IN THIS (PANDEMIC) TIME
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: The Stirring Two-song Soundtrack CONTENTS
IN THIS (PANDEMIC) TIME is a Kurated series informed by COVID-19.
For now, the best seat in the house is still at home.
A TWO-SONG SOUNDTRACK
Just before the movie theatres closed in March for the COVID-19 shutdown, a friend and I took in the excellent film Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
The following day she texted: “I’m still thinking of this movie. It’s going to stay with me.”
And it has. It’s a memorable and arresting production.
Widely acclaimed, the 18th century forbidden lesbian romance story stands apart in too many ways to detail here. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. Briefly though, they include the dynamic intimacy and intensity of the two main actors; a strong script plus excellent cinematography. Notably, the probing dialogue is presented almost entirely without music. For most of one hour and 59 minutes, the audience hears only the characters talk in everyday settings: the crackle of fire, the sea, the ruffling of clothing, and so on plus a snippet of incidental harpsichord music which is played by a full orchestra at the film’s end.
The film’s two compositions are the emotional highpoints of the award-winning 2019 film.
The first, La Jeune Fille en Feu, lands at the halfway point. A choral piece delivered with insistent vocals by an all woman choir clapping an urgent rhythm around a campfire, the song breaches the film’s musical silence and signals a breakthrough in the relationship between the two main characters.
The track was composed by electronic music producer Para One (aka Jean-Baptiste de Laubier) and composer Arthur Simonini. After extensive research into music of the period, they urged the film’s writer and director – Céline Sciamma– to adopt a contemporary sound to better animate the film’s critical moment.
The lyrics are in Latin and roughly translate into the theme, “The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”
For a more detailed explanation check out this article.
The film ends with Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 2 for violin in G minor which is also known as Summer in the composer’s Four Seasons.
SPOILER ALERT: The video for the Concerto reveals important information as does the video clip mentioned below.
The Power of the Gaze
There are numerous articles, reviews, interviews with the film’s director and actors and video commentaries about Portrait of a Lady On Fire to be found online. One that caught my attention is by YouTube movie critic Broey Deschenel. Her short video –What Portrait of a Lady on Fire Tells Us About “the Gaze” – opens with a clip by one of my favourite writers, author and art critic John Berger.
The “gaze” is much studied and discussed in art history, gender studies, psychoanalysis, critical theory and more. Portrait’s director Sciamma indicates that her film is “a manifesto on the gaze in a film that aims to capture the truth of a woman on canvas.”
Actor Adèle Haenel who plays Héloïse, the woman whose portrait is the subject of the film, says in the video she built her character as one who would transform from “object to subject”.
While Deschenel’s analysis references some heady art theory points, it offers an illuminating assessment of the film. She also introduces the artist who painted almost all of the film’s canvases, Hélène Delmaire, whose own work significantly explores the “gaze”.
Where to Watch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available on YouTube and the Hulu streaming platform.
23 May 2020