A very good evening from the Lifestyle Support Guru in my role as a film critic and particularly as a critic of French films – they never fail to disappoint (well, they do, actually, but not as sources of continual surprise)! This afternoon’s offering was no exception – called ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, my Geordie friend and I were looking forward to a film described as ‘elegant and enigmatic … erotic and cerebral, bold and restrained’; we should have realised that too many adjectives had been used and ‘cerebral’ was a dead giveaway – there were going to be lots of long silences and gazing into the distance, which are standard in French films.
Beware – spoilers!
The film started with the ‘heroine’, Marianne, being rowed to a small island to paint the portrait of a young lady, Héloïse, although she wasn’t to let the young lady know this because the young lady didn’t want her portrait painting to be sent off to Milan as a sort of 18th century Tinder application. Before getting to the island, the heroine had to leap into the sea from the rowing boat taking her there because her canvases had fallen into the water – she achieved this despite wearing a full-length dress and petticoats, but it allowed the film director to show her sitting naked in front of a fire drying herself off as she gazed into the distance.
The young lady to be painted had only just come out of a convent (it was never explained why she was in one in the first place) to replace her sister, who had died in mysterious circumstances (by throwing herself off a cliff), on Tinder. (She did say that she had never heard an orchestra playing – remember this for later.) Painting the portrait involved lots of sideways glances at the young lady, then making quick sketches back at the chateau in order to help build up the portrait. The chateau was very bare and understaffed – just one young maid – and the food certainly wasn’t going to earn any Michelin stars or fill you up ready for long walks on the beach gazing into the distance.
It was obvious that Marianne and Héloïse were going to fall in love, especially when the mother went off to Italy for a few days (no coronavirus then) to check how the Tinder application was getting along, thus leaving them alone with the maid (who had a problem of her own) and all three spent one jolly evening playing Snap in the kitchen and another evening helping the maid try to get rid of her ‘problem’ by dangling from the ceiling in the kitchen (along with other methods, but I won’t go into detail). A third evening was spent at a party (all-female, for some reason – in fact, we hadn’t realised that anyone else, male or female, lived on the island) at a bonfire to which the local W.I. choir seemed to have been invited, bursting into song before the young lady’s dress caught fire, hence the film’s title. No harm seemed to be done, even to the dress, which she was wearing the next day on a walk to the beach to do some long-distance gazing.
To cut a long story short, there was a bit of arguing, then the mother came back from Italy (without a face mask) and handed over a brown paper envelope to Marianne, presumably containing payment for the portrait, and a wedding dress to Héloïse and Marianne was sent on her way, having done her job. She saw Héloïse twice more – once in a portrait with a young child by her side, displayed in an exhibition, and then in a concert hall where Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ was being performed, causing Héloïse’s bosom to heave mightily at the sound of an orchestra. (Personally, much as I like ‘Four Seasons’, it has never caused my bosom to heave in this way, which is probably a relief to all who know me!)
It was felt that a ‘snifter’ was required after this, although we both agreed that there had not been as much eroticism as we’d expected (feared?), but I needed to hear how my Geordie friend had been mistaken for a care home resident by the home’s minister who said that she was ‘doing really well’ – and she is!