Tag Archives: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Rafiki (2018)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire set the film world alight last year. It didn’t succeed quite in the culture-shock storm-the-box-office fashion of other non-English language features like Parasite, probably because Portrait‘s power wasn’t unlike that of a secret: it never relied on making a big splash (narratively or even externally) to make the intimate feel universal. Everything about that film seems secretive, not least of which, obviously, is the forbidden romance between its two leading women. Consigned to privacy in isolation together for a limited amount of time, the fragility of their secret lends a sense of doom to the film’s loveliest moments. Part of the brilliance of Portrait was this: these lovers are on a literal island away from the norms of society, and yet are still forced apart in the end by those very same norms.

The lovers of Rafiki have no such refuge, apart from the private moments they make for themselves amidst the Nairobi bustle. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), in fact, lead individual lives that are likely more public than most. Kena is the daughter of a prominent politician seeking election in the coming days. She spends much of her time in the same haunt preferred by the vicious town gossip, who hardly even seems to recognize privacy as a concept. Ziki, meanwhile, is also the daughter of a politician — the one running against Kena’s father, of course — and spends much of her time dancing with her friends around town. Her floor-length multicolored braids are not those of someone who appears to shy away from the spotlight.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Marianne, the artist and main character of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, invites us to know her immediately. Look at the way I sit, she says. Take time to look at me while I pose. Look at the way I hold my hands, she says, before her fist involuntarily clenches at the sight of an old painting of hers. A scene later Marianne is no longer posing, but we take time to look at her face when she sees her painting equipment go over the side of a boat. We see her foot find purchase on the boat’s edge, we see the briefest flicker of uncertainty, and we feel we know her a little better when she dives into the water.

How well can one really know another, though? Even under constant observation, even if the subject is unaware of the observer’s gaze, can that space between ever fully be bridged? Sciamma’s Portrait, a brilliant and surefooted romance captured passionately onscreen, asks this of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The latter is introduced first under a figurative veil of secrecy — we’re told that the last painter who attempted Héloïse’s portrait was “unable to finish” — and then under a literal one, provided by a black cloak and a series of obscure camera angles. We’re with Marianne the whole time, wondering about Héloïse and her secrets.

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