Portrait of a Lady on Fire & The Invisible Man March 10, 2020
One of the best movies of 2019 and an unexpectedly great horror adaptation
t isn’t an easy task. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young 18th-century-era French aristocrat, is due to be married to a Milanese nobleman. They’ve never met
each other. Before they are to meet face to face, the nobleman insists that a portrait of Héloïse be painted, then delivered to him, to ensure that she is in fact the one for him. Héloïse, however, refuses to pose. The last person who tried to depict her on canvas as of late was driven away. She doesn’t want to marry the nobleman especially because before setting his sights on her, he was to wed Héloïse’s sister. Shortly before the ceremony was to take place, the latter died. She plummeted off a cliff. Some say it was accidental; her maid, Sophie, who is portrayed by Luàna Bajrami, thinks she killed herself, too distraught over her fate to go on.
Héloïse's willfulness will not do. So soon,
Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in 2019's Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young artist, is brought to the secluded island on which Héloïse and her mother (Valeria Golino) are living to complete the portrait. It’s likely, however, that Héloïse will not pose for Marianne, either. So the latter is tasked to work under the guise of a walking companion, using cursory glimpses of her subject’s face and figure during beachside strolls to complete the work.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the excellent, visually and emotionally rich new film from the writer-director Céline Sciamma, Héloïse will indeed get her likeness beautifully blown up on a canvas. She and Marianne will also fall in love — something that becomes apparent to us almost as soon as Héloïse appears on screen for the first time, 20 minutes after the feature has begun. In store is a sumptuous romantic drama; in it, physical and psychic intimacy give the all-important portrait the power to transcend — where the artist understands and thus can accurately depict her subject rather than project onto her. (Such a notion feels a bit meta, since Haenel and Sciamma have been working together for more than a decade, and were romantically involved for many years.) This understanding between Marianne and her figure is requited: “You dreamed of me?” Marianne asks Héloïse at one point. “No,” Héloïse replies, “I thought of you.”
The movie rather wonderfully works as a moving corrective of sorts. Set during a period in which love between women and art produced by women was especially unequivocally undercut, then would go on to be historically elided, it pointedly depicts a brief respite during which both, unburdened by the mores of the outside world, were able to flourish, and move to the forefront. We’re enthralled as Portrait of a Lady on Fire slow burns to the moment where Héloïse and Marianne’s pent-up mutual passion is released. Once we get there, the audience, and the characters, are made to cherish it, because this is a movie that ultimately has to make, as highlighted in the film in reference to a retelling of Orpheus, the choices of poets rather than of lovers. Eventually, the grief for what once was might seem even more lyrical than what was experienced in the moment.
How many throughout history have had to make the “poet’s choice” not on their own accord but under the confines of patriarchical oppression? Portrait of a Lady on Fire tacitly wonders how many stories and circumstances like Héloïse’s and Marianne’s have been blotted out by history. It functions as a tribute to the nebulous “them.” Two epilogues — one circling around a hidden message in a painting, another a crescendo of emotion at a concert — are so overwhelming that they don’t so much ache as set the screen alight. Haenel and Merlant are terrific in the movie — so believably enamored of each other you can almost sense the heat quaking in the air.
So much of Portrait of a Lady on Fire revolves around its characters’ interior lives becoming increasingly exterior. But while the movie’s emotional resonance has something of an arc, the film feels like it’s eternally rumbling — made in a sustained period of passion with moments of particularly short bursts of it. Its framing and colors evoke the Dutch masters, so intense and sublimely textured; it seems to be vibrating underneath its frequently silent, equable surfaces, looking for a catharsis.
Will Haenel and Sciamma — the all-too-rare muse-director pairing preternaturally in sync — continue to work (or, to paraphrase Marianne during a pivotal scene, invent things) together? “I don’t know,” Sciamma recently told Vanity Fair, adding, “There’s a lot of possibilities. But you know what? When you have that kind of trust, you don’t have to dream…you can go through your present without worrying.” What they’ve accomplished together — not unlike the characters they’ve brought to the screen — doesn’t feel temporary, because the power of what they have accomplished doesn’t fade.
revious movie adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897) typically emphasize the experiences of its title character: a scientist who loses his mind and then turns to a life of crime after discovering how to make
himself invisible. The newest iteration of the story — a relentless, intense reworking written and directed by Leigh Whannell (known for his work on the Insidious franchise) and starring Elisabeth Moss — isn’t interested in again putting on a pedestal the point of view of the eponymous villain. So instead it stresses the effect his invisibility has on one of his victims: an architect named Cecilia (Moss) whom he with increasing gusto terrorizes for the entirety of the movie.
In both the book and other adaptations, the titular antagonist is framed as only turning into a true menace after becoming inconspicuous. In 2020’s The Invisible Man, he’s sinister from the start. He’s a billionaire scientist named Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who, behind closed doors, physically and mentally abuses Cecilia, with whom he's been in a relationship for several years. That relationship comes to an end at the beginning of the movie, though. In a frantic opening sequence, we watch Cecilia escape from Adrian’s highly surveilled fortress of a mansion early one morning. The sequence is capped by Adrian punching out the window of Cecilia’s escape car driven by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). This foreshadows what’s to come.
Cecilia is invited to stay with her childhood friend, a policeman named James (Aldis Hodge), and his daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), until she can get back up on her feet. For now, Cecilia is so rattled, especially given Adrian’s propensity for undetectable surveillance methods, that she cannot so much as walk to the mailbox at the end of James’ driveway without prematurely sprinting back inside. Soon into The Invisible Man, though, Cecilia can exhale. Adrian, news alerts announce, has died by suicide, and has left behind $5 million for her. Soon after, Cecilia creates a college fund for Sydney, who aspires to go to fashion school. She schedules a job interview for herself, eager to restart her life.
It’s around here that The Invisible Man starts to become just as much of a redux of Gaslight (1944), the Ingrid Bergman thriller in which the latter’s character is made to feel delusional by her scheming, money-hungry new husband (Charles Boyer). When Cecilia goes to her interview, she not only opens her portfolio to find it empty — she also passes out while talking with her prospective employer, later learning that there was a staggering amount of Diazepam in her system. (She knows she hadn't wittingly ingested any.)
Other bizarre episodes come to the fore. While Cecilia is making breakfast on the stove one morning, the heat seemingly turns up by itself after she briefly turns away, setting off the smoke detector. Emily later confronts her for sending a hateful email, which Cecilia knows for sure she didn’t write. Sometimes Cecilia sees indents on empty chairs, as if someone were sitting there. Sometimes she sees footprints, coming from no one, apparently, press onto carpets. Then literal attacks by an unseeable entity start to pop up with more and more regularity. It’s clear to Cecilia pretty quickly that Adrian perhaps isn’t dead. Has he somehow figured out a way to turn himself invisible? He is not a science-slash-tech mogul for nothing, after all. Inevitably, no one believes Cecilia when she tells them what she thinks is happening.
The Invisible Man inexorably features the trademark visual touchstones of its predecessors: knives and guns dangling midair; fights with nothingness that immediately make us think about how ridiculous a given actor looked on the set that day; moments where something long and billowing is thrown over the unseeable villain’s head and briefly you can see his form. But the movie also smoothly incorporates for the first time how much scarier this style of antagonist is in the highly surveilled current moment. Now, he not only feels physically omniscient but technologically so, too. Suspense-generating scenes — which in spurts surprisingly evolve into action-movie-esque stuntishness — are innovative if finally conventionally placed. Whannell, who has mostly worked on horror movies designed to be efficient rather than transcendent, evidently knows how to get his audience worked up even if along the way plot holes start to show up.
Moss, filling in another role requiring her to bring to life a character whose sanity is slammed against its limits (see 2015’s Queen of Earth, 2019’s Her Smell), is exceptionally frazzled. She’s so good that she can sell the movie’s ending, which, while satisfactory on a (spoiler alert) revenge-style note, is so literal that it takes away the power a more open-ended finale might have afforded. Moss' performance not only evokes what Bergman accomplished in the aforementioned Gaslight but also what was done by Deborah Kerr in the haunted-house movie The Innocents (1961), or Mia Farrow in the occult-addled Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In those films these women played characters who were similarly made to feel like their terrorizations were not meant to be believed, with society more willing to believe the unseen menace. Like those performers, Moss maintains our assurance in her even as she too is led to doubt what she’s experiencing. Like those movies, The Invisible Man also effectively holds up a subliminal “believe women” banner — something that isn’t unheard of in horror per se but in our #MeToo era has a new kind of power. The film efficiently wields it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A
The Invisible Man: B+