Podcast: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

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We catch up on what we’re watching lately during these crazy pandemic lockdown times, and then we launch into a review of this 2019 French film — Portrait de la jeune fille en feu — set in the late 18th century on an isolated island in Brittany. Costume designer Dorothée Guiraud worked with director Céline Sciamma’s idea to use stripped-down historical fashions for the four female characters, and we’ll be the judge of how well that worked out!

You can listen to us critique Portrait of a Lady on Fire costumes online below, or on iTunes.

 

15 Responses

  1. Damnitz

    As my friend told, when we saw it: it doesn’t tried to be historical. They just didn’t cared about historical hairstyle and so on and it even doesn’t show people from the period but modern people (the “young women” is obviously too old to be married) and the style of painting is just laughable from a period point of view.

    Reply
  2. Carla

    I found this podcast deeply frustrating. While I understand its point is to nitpick costume and time period, there is also context being provided about the story and while it’s clear a little research was done outside of costumes, the main point(s) of this film and the context provided were insufficient and very misunderstood and it didn’t help frame the conversation for people who haven’t seen the film before. I would suggest that the podcast consider getting a cinefile onboard or doing more research around the director and topic in a deeper dive first. It is noted that the film feels long for how thin the plot is and I would argue the opposite, a lot of information is contained within these scenes that went over the heads of the podcasters. This is a movie that rewards repeat viewing, there are many aspects that would be uncovered upon a rewatch.

    I’ll provide some additional context not covered in this podcast that will hopefully help and answers some of the questions the podcasters had. One podcaster mentioned the veils and referenced an interview with the director but missed the point the director was trying to make by using the veils. Celine Sciamma is a radical feminist filmmaker. Many of the points in this film that were missed had to do with these underlying messages woven into the story. The veils were written in by the director because she wanted to show a way to visually display the concept of consent. She wrote in the line about the windy day (and seeing them on the cliffs, it is windy) because she wanted that costume piece to amount to a nonverbal “yes” when they remove them. When they meet in the cave, they are essentially undressing themselves by removing their own masks, and it is their way of consenting to one another and both saying yes to the situation that is about to unfold.

    The story was set in that time period of 1770s because there was a renaissance of female painters at that time prior to the French Revolution and unfortunately their stories were erased and they were forgotten about even though there were hundreds of them, because they had to paint under male names and the conventions men were defining at the time. By making this film, Sciamma wanted to tell the untold stories and contributions of women at that time and to give them their voices, talents, and passions back by telling their story through this painter.

    This is the same reason the abortion scene was also important to paint, because the director was trying to give women their voices and stories back. There were no paintings of abortions being made and shown at this time, abortions were something women weren’t supposed to talk about, like their other opinions and life experiences.She is making a point that abortion isn’t new and is something that has always existed, and it’s a radical act for Marianne to paint it but she does. Heloise encourages her to do so because contrary to popular belief, muses weren’t just these static objects, they had their own life force and abilities and were co-creators in the artistic process. She encourages Marianne to paint with her own eyes as she sees things, not as men are telling her to see things i.e. patriarchal constraints. It is this freedom that allows Marianne to start painting Heloise not according to the conventions defined by men but through her eyes as a woman, as well as the experiences and stories important to women that men erase or don’t tell, like abortion.

    As for Heloise treating the servant as beneath her by having her pose for the abortion scene, the maid consents to the painting and is also an active participant in it through the project so it is consensual. The director intentionally wanted to create equality between Marianne, Heloise and the maid, because she is trying to say that without men around, there aren’t patriarchal constraints that create a hierarchy that divides them. This is why at the end when the man returns, it is a scare to the audience and the maid gives Marianne an intense look, to signal to her that their times as equals are over and that she has to go back to a subservient role.

    The armpit scene that the podcasters seemed to have an issue with stemmed from the director wanting to give the audience a sex scene without having to exploit or make the actors uncomfortable. Feminist filmmaking at its best.

    I was sad one of the podcasters didn’t finish the film and wanted to do a podcast on it. I’m a podcaster and wouldn’t think of not completing a picture before talking about it. Not to mention, it was the most memorable film ending I’ve seen in a long time so definitely too bad, hope she gets to finish. As for the opera and why they didn’t meet at the opera, it was the 1770s. Reality and poet’s choice, to hark back to the mythology in the film. I would probably also refrain from giving away what happens at the end for the audience, bearing in mind that many people listening probably haven’t watched it yet. But since it was… The director doesn’t see the ending as sad btw. It’s all perspective. The director references love’s true gift as emancipation, and these characters are freed and unlocked in some way. Neither is sad in the end truly. Love lives.

    As for the paintings, the director wanted a modern painter and while they took inspiration from historic paintings, it wasn’t important for them to go into exact details of accuracy. Instead, they wanted to show a female artist at work and the steps she took to both create art and to fall in love.

    Surprised the blue cape wasn’t talked about more besides warmth, it was amazing and maybe my favorite costume piece in a long time. Enjoyed hearing other aspects about the clothes and hair.

    Peace.

    Reply
    • Cláudio Alves

      Thank you for this detailed comment.

      I found this episode of the podcast frustrating too, though I often feel like that whenever this site tries to talk about cinema in general and not just the particulars of historical recreation in costumes. I too would like to have a cinephile join in the podcast, if nothing else to had some variety to the conversation and a new perspective. The fact someone did an entire podcast about a film they didn’t see to the end feels somewhat disrespectful to the work of art they’re putatively trying to criticise.

      With all that said, I hope the authors of Frock Flicks don’t get offended by these words. The work you do is often very entertaining and valuable. I’m thankful for it, even though I have some quibbles. If my words were too harsh, I apologize. Thank you.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      That’s a different type of review than we’re doing & different to the entire reason for our blog & podcast though.

      Look, it’s right there in the title — “costume movie reviews & podcast.” The first word is “costume” & that is always the lens through which we review things. That’s why we started doing this! There are PLENTY of other reviewers talking about everything else you mentioned — cool! That’s great! That’s not us! We are here for a specific reason.

      Also, some of the points you made were from the director’s POV, which is not apparent in the film itself. That’s always problematic. If a viewer doesn’t appreciate XYZ that a director is trying to say with their work, then maybe the director didn’t do a satisfactory job. For example, the actual historical period & timeline in this film was unclear, which we discussed. Usually, this would be something indicated by changes in costume, dialog, or title cards, but it wasn’t.

      Likewise, you suggest things that may be ‘important’ to the director, well, we talk about things that are important to us. This is our podcast & blog — & to come back to my first point, the historical accuracy of things (esp. costumes, but other stuff too) is important to us. It’s what we do! If you want a review about other issues, there’s plenty of other places to find ’em :)

      We’re a niche, & we’re OK with that.

      Reply
    • Damnitz

      There are many films about female painters and I even have the impression, that the focus of modern filmmakers is more about female painters then about male painters (of the 17th and 18th century). OK, we can argue, why for example “Jefferson in Paris” did not reflected the work of Mrs. Cosway properly.

      I don’t think that the female artists of the period were not recognized in the past or today. We could discuss about the unfairness of the academical art world of the time. It’s widely known, that it was prohibited to paint nudes for women in the academy.
      However for example the rules of the French academy which allowed 2 female members only, was completely unfair. Besides the membership depended heavily on patronage. For example the quality of Dorothea Therbusch’s portraypaintings is today highly debatable, as the most conclusively painted details were painted by her brother Christoph Lisiewski, who obviously was a much more talented artist (although he was not favoured by the highest nobility like his sister).

      One of the better scenes of the film was with the pupils of the heroine. Although we could debate about the aspect, who would try to learn something by a teacher who can’t paint particulary good. But there are some examples in history, where the pupils were much better than the teachers. Theresa Concordia Mengs, who painted very much like her husband and her brother, would be such an example.

      I would like to see movies which can deal better to reflect the social coexistence during the 18th century. “The nun” in my point of view did there a more convincingly work, although I don’t like the differences from the book.
      In almost all cases the representation of the servants is questionable. “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” is a good example. We don’t see how one female servant alone could manage a complete household of such a large building. We see the same in “Tulip fever”. Although maybe in “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” the very very small household should reflect the decline of the wealth of the noble family here. Female servants were very cheap. Every rich family reflected the wealth and importance by as many male servants as possible, while female servants often were numerous but invisible for visitors/friends of the family.
      To reflect the closeness of the ladies or gentlemen to some special servants properly is’nt easy because the relationship of servants and masters is a very complex Topic (I’m Aware of the fact reenacting servants of the period for many years, which could be quiet “lonely” on many occassions…).

      Reply
  3. Carla

    To add to that, Marianne doesn’t have to paint in the style of the period i.e. male gaze once Heloise points out to her that she also has considerable patriarchal constraints and that they are equals, i.e. “you are in the same place that I am”. For example, the abortion painting – besides its radical subject matter – is also in a very modern imaginative style. She is getting to paint what she wants, as she would want to paint it, and is liberated by their collaboration.

    Reply
  4. Lauren

    What really annoyed me about the costumes in this film is that the filmmakers purposefully chose to set the story in one of the most detailed/over-the-top time periods and only to try and “strip down” that aesthetic. The story itself is so timeless that it could have been set in any time period! Why not have it happen in the later 18th century or early 19th century and just use the simpler styles that were in fashion then? The story could have been exactly the same. It really makes no sense! Great script and acting, but completely baffling costumes IMO.

    Reply
  5. Shashwat

    I have not seen the full movie,just a few clips here and there.For once I was not bothered about the stripped down aesthetic because the movie gave me a sense of isolation,and a unpretentious setting.No balls,no grand setting,just a few people and their interaction.The costumes were certainly not bothersome to me,as there is little you could do inaccurately when eveeything is so plain yet accurate.Atleast they wore chemises underneath their corset(it looked less like stays).I luuuuuurved the green francaise gown,and the pictures of the floaty wedding gown look so aesthetically pleasing.The movie also looked well shot cinematographically,and the picture composition seemed like an impressionistic painting.That shot of her standing in the dark and wearing that ghostly gown is just perfect.I believe that good cinematography works to make the fabrics richer.Hair done up in a normal bun is better than beachy waves.Atleast no bangs or inaccurate curls.The fact that the painting style was anachronistic didn’t bother me as much as it should,because the movie feels like an impressionistic painting.Like an alternate reality that our leading ladies carved for themselves.I must be sounding like an idiot raving only about the cinematography on a costuming site,but it is a part of aesthetic pleasure so it counts.Of what I watched in the movie,I liked the progress of the relationship.Period dramas have acquired the notorious reputation of being bodice-ripper spice material,but here I found the movie very gentle,cohesive and relatable.Relatable not by 21st century standards,but as a normal human.People have a thousand other jobs than thinking about love,but when it hits it is very hard.Period dramas make it seem like every interesting person back then belonged to the lgbtq umbrella,but it is rather tricky to realize what you wish to be recognized as.The movie handled that initial self reluctance very well.When people were discriminated in a republic on basis of annual income,thinking about gender issues in such a society is futile.The movie was like ASMR,so soothing and so relatable.And I don’t have a pronlem with the timeless plotline set in 18th century,because,well,aren’t Shakespeare and Austen timeless and relevant?If Shakespeare could set his comedies in the Groman(he mixes the greek and roman deities)civilizations,this movie too should not be judged for it.
    Regarding the tragic ending(which I have not watched so I will not judge)I would rather have a well made tragedy than a mediocre feel good happy ending.After all the aim of art is not to unite lovers,but to delve into the meaning of love.
    Maybe it is just my opinion as I have watched Indian cinema growing up,but historical drama as a human drama can be handled brilliantly(like 1965 Charulata,a really interesting movie that tackles adultery,emancipation of women,Anglicization of Indian society,freedom of press in1870’s Bengal all in the trademark Satyajit Ray style)or be completely botched up(like Kalank[taint].That shitfest lives to meaning of its name)

    Reply
  6. Aleko

    I haven’t yet seen it – though it’s definitely on my list! I just wanted to say that Sciamma wasn’t exaggerating the repression of female artists in late 18th century France. Here’s what Diderot had to say about the Prussian artist Anna Dorothea Therbusch when she tried to become a success in Paris:

    “She does not lack the talent to arouse interest in a country like ours, she lacks youth, beauty, modesty, coquetterie. She could have been enthusiastic about the merits of our great artists, taken lessons from them, had more bosom and a handsome posterior and have had to offer both to the artists.”

    Doesn’t that sound familiar, even today?

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  7. Constance

    I want to see costumes as close as possible to what the people would have worn for each event in their lives, so am disappointed…I enjoy the frippery of upper class 18th century dress…missed it here. Even the robes were plain to the point of monk-like…

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  8. Constance

    But I did love the movie and forgot about costumes after a while…

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  9. Suzanne Levin

    Perhaps it’s a flaw that it didn’t come out more obviously in the film, but the period wasn’t chosen at random or even uniquely for its repressiveness, but because on the contrary the late 18th-early 19th century was something of a unique period for female professional independence (if not always recognition, especially before the Revolution) among artists in France. The historical consultant for the film, Séverine Sofio’s sociological study of women artists in this period (appropriately intitled “Artistes femmes”) is really fascinating and I recommend it for those who can read French. It is a little bit oblique to the actual substance of the film though, so it ends up being something that’s nice to recognize if you’re familiar with that context but not necessarily necessary…

    Since I do have that context, I would also say they were almost certainly going for 1780s in the frame and 1770s in the flashback, even if the costumes didn’t necessarily convey that very well. And if that is the case, I don’t know how much Vivaldi was still being performed in the 1780s… But films do often use baroque music in the 1780s-1790s because I guess it sounds more dramatic? Idk, I notice that kind of thing at least as much as costumes, but I’m probably the only one.

    Anyway, it was nice to hear the podcast again!

    Reply
    • Damnitz

      I would guess that the filmmakers just don’t know the work of the period musicians like Grétry, who made very dramatic music (especially in his tragédie lyriques). Or the filmmakers just hope, that the audience will be more pleased to hear something they know already. My (female!) friend nearly had to laugh about the inappropriate music at the end of the movie.

      Reply
      • Suzanne Levin

        Well, that’s the stereotype, anyway. I agree there’s actually quite a lot of very dramatic classical music, even with Grétry (like in Andromaque, for example), but especially on the more gluckiste end of the spectrum. I love baroque music, but I wish they would give classical era composers their due (and not just Mozart either). It’s performed less, but there have still been enough recent recordings that there’s plenty to choose from and there’s not the same risk as with with putting on an opera. People might not want to pay to hear a composer they’re not familiar with, but they’re not going to not see a movie because it features less well-known composers…

        Reply

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