Portraits of Fire in the Ancien Régime

Ithaca, NY.

Just before the shutters were drawn on public gatherings in this college town in the middle of the Empire State, and before the thousands of students were sent away (many to corona hotspots in Westchester County and New York City), I went to the movies one last time.

Cinemapolis is a non-profit art house funded partly by sustaining members. The movie house offers a diverse program of independent, foreign, and locally-produced films. There’s even a cry-baby cinema for parents and infants on Thursday mornings, though as yet no interspecies screenings for pets and their human companions. Given canine immunity to the present plague and in light of the added emotional sustenance these four-legged creatures provide canophilic cinephiles in healthier times, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new cinematic pet policy after the watershed weeks and months of the pandemic have passed.

Formerly housed in the dingy, rather claustrophobic, but somehow still charming basement of an urban mall called Center Ithaca, Cinemapolis moved just around the corner a decade ago to a new purpose-built structure wedged into a multi-story garage. Access for those arriving by car is gained by stairs/elevator leading down from the parking tiers. A couple of bike racks near the theatre’s doors gesture weakly towards the needs of cyclists, but serve only to draw attention to the overwhelming weight of the automobile infrastructure looming above one’s head.

Access for pedestrians is along a narrow alley, LED lights flickering off the gray concrete pillars and monstrous slabs. Against this backdrop, arrival by foot at this excellent cinema can verge on the post-apocalyptic. Every bomb shelter should have a big screen.

Still in the pre-apocalypse, the real-life mise-en-scène in front of the cinema was made to order for a final foray into the big dark before the joys and rigors of self-isolation begin.

Inside Cinemapolis I received my discounted ticket, and after scanning my membership card, the latex-gloved cashier informed me that I had earned a free concession. Common sense overruled the olfactory desire of this popcorn addict: these are not ideal times for finger foods.

The lobby was empty except for the employees, but surprisingly the screening room—one of five—was half full, and, as is often the case at Cinemapolis, mostly peopled by gray-haired folks. Ithacan spirits, at least those of the assembled cineastes, appeared undaunted by the viral threat.

Indeed, word of mouth—passed, one hoped, at the recommended hailing distance of six feet or more—had rustled up a large audience for Portrait of a Lady On Fire, a French film about a love story between two ancien régime young women of different classes: the one an aristocrat, the other a painter. The latter arrives to paint the former, who has thwarted previous attempts to capture her on canvas. If a successful likeness can be made, it will be sent to the Milanese nobleman with whom the parents have hatched an upwardly mobile matrimonial deal. The visiting artist must make the portrait without the portrayed finding out.

Save for a ferryman and the bewigged swarm of male aristocrats at an exhibition seen late in the film, Portrait of a Woman on Fire is free of male presence: masculine hegemony looms beyond the frame, but the on-screen love story and love scenes remain liberated from its distorting imperatives.

Fittingly, too, the film’s setting had something of a quarantine station about it—the threatening shores of an island off the Brittany Coast, with the surf crashing passionately on cue when called on to do so.

The sparse, superb script takes on many big themes (love, of course; the futility/necessity of resistance to the strictures of family and society; how to capture emotion in the motionless picture), but it does so in sparse, often witty ways through telling reversals and unexpected connections. One such moment comes in the form of the use of invisible quotation marks when the aristocrat asks the painter what she tells her sitters. (By this point, the painter has admitted to her previously clandestine mission.) There is a pause as the artist continues to work, and the question appears to have been ignored or forgotten. After a while, the painter extols the subject’s talent for sitting for a portrait and dispassionately catalogs the features of her beauty. There is another pause. “That is what I tell my subjects,” the painter concludes. A smile flickers across the sitter’s face, the artist’s too.

The writer-director Céline Sciamma cast her former lover Adèle Haenel as the laconic aristocrat, betrothed to the distant Italian. Both walked out of the recent Césars—France’s equivalent of the Oscars—when Roman Polanski was announced as the winner of the Best Director Award. Given such results, it’s hardly surprising that A Portait of a Lady On Fire, though nominated for nine César awards, came away with only one—for cinematography. The movie won the Queer Palm at Cannes: easily mistaken as a form of backhanded recognition.

Unapologetically a period piece, the film nonetheless resists the seductions of opulence—of vast wardrobes of luxurious gowns, of establishing shots of magnificent country houses, of rich gardens in full bloom. Instead, Sciamma concentrates on faces and bodies, creating calm painterly scenes whose stillness vibrates with emotion.

That deceptive tranquility extends to the soundtrack, purged of all music not heard or, in one instance of fragments played by the painter on a neglected spinet, actually made by the characters. Those snatches at the keyboard are taken from the violin concerto “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—here meant to provide the young, untraveled aristocratic islander with a glimmer of the cosmopolitan allure of Venice and its music. Even those bits of melody are pregnant with meaning if you listen for it: a huge tourist attraction in its day, Vivaldi’s music was performed under his direction by orphaned girls, destined for isolation or matrimony.

In this first of just three musical moments in the film, we hear only a few, ungainly notes. The painter can offer only a faulty memory of the full-blown concerto.

But every love story must, it seems, have its love song. This comes midway through the film’s two hours when the pair (and the servant), their love still undeclared but seething just below the picture surface, visit a bonfire where the island’s peasant women break into a kind of primal clapping and then successively break into ecstatic, faux-medieval polyphony repeating a Latin motto devised by Sciamma—fugere non possum [I cannot flee]. Redolent of a witches sabbath this wildly anachronistic music, the first of only two set pieces in the film, rings out with thrilling paradox: the song rises with the sparks into the night, escaping even as the poor but powerful singers—and the lovers who watch and listen—cannot. The scene and its music also gives the film its title scene: allegorical rather than melodramatic.

The Vivaldi returns in full shining raiment in the final scene that takes place in an opera theatre; the orchestra remains unseen, but its music must emanate from inside the hall. The tempestuous concerto blares, emotion leaps like flames, even as the listeners remain composed. It is music, after all, that closes the deal.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com