Last fall, buzz on the street was that Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was going to be a masterpiece, and one with sumptuous, award-worthy cinematography. IndiWire critics even proclaimed it one of the 100 best movies of the decade as early as last July.
As satisfying as it would be to jump on that bandwagon, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” opening locally Friday at the Embarcadero, isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.
The French-language film opens in the 18th century, with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching an art class to young girls. One has taken out a beautiful, mysterious painting, a portrait of a lady on fire.
Marianne seems pained by it. A student asks what’s the title, the camera dramatically tracks in on Marianne, there’s a pause, and she says, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
To quote Billie Eilish, “Duh.”
The movie flashes back to the origin story of the portrait of the lady. She is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has just quit a nunnery and returned home, where her mother (Valeria Golino, from “Rain Man” and the “Hot Shots!” films) pressures her to marry.
To lure in a husband, Héloïse needs a portrait, but since she refuses to sit for one — and has driven away other painters — Marianne is hired as a ruse. She’ll pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint in secret.
Of course, the two women fall in love.
The movie contains a heartrending moment in which Héloïse emerges for the first time, clad in cloak and hood and marching toward the beach. Marianne follows behind, trying to catch up, wondering what the young lady looks like.
A gust of wind blows off her hood, showing her pinned-up chestnut-blond hair, but also somehow deepening the mystery even more. If only it could have lasted.
It’s not long before the two women are sitting on the beach, conversing in basic, “over-the-shoulder” back-and-forth camera setups.
The much-vaunted cinematography turns out to be mostly this, plus the occasional nighttime shot lit by fire or candle, and one or two poetic shots in which the women’s faces eclipse one another, as in Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.”
By opening with the classroom sequence (and why would Marianne keep the painting on hand if she doesn’t want the students to see it?) and flashing back, plus the fact that we can guess the story’s outcome due to the time and place, the movie has little suspense and momentum.
It also has very little heat. One striking scene in which Marianne sketches a secret-self portrait using a mirror balanced against Héloïse’s naked body comes too late and is all too rare.
An earlier LGBTQ movie, 2013’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” was far more effective at showing the women becoming thoroughly lost in one another, both emotionally and physically, although an argument could be made that the “male gaze” was involved.
Conversely, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” offers much quiet elegance, with more than a handful of beautiful scenes, such as Marianne diving out of a boat to rescue her fallen canvases, then sitting by the fire, smoking a pipe and waiting for them to dry.
It has enough to make it worth a look, not to mention that its 250-year-old story is still somewhat sadly relevant in this time of rage and hate.
But a little more economy and anticipation could have made it better. It somewhat recalls Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great 1943 “I Walked with a Zombie” — in which a nurse is hired to come to a remote island to care for a mysterious female patient — without the romance, but with the walks on the beach.
Yet that movie conveys more mystery and beauty in 69 minutes than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” does in 119 minutes. More brush strokes doesn’t necessarily result in better art.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2 1/2 stars
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Written and directed by: Céline Sciamma
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
What would Pauline Kael have made of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”? There’s no way to know, but, given that she was an inspiration to me as well, it would be fun to think that the famous kicky, prickly film critic (1919-2001) would also have referenced “I Walked with a Zombie.”
Kael’s legacy is celebrated in a newly-released documentary, Rob Garver’s “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael,” opening Friday at the Opera Plaza.
Kael was born in Petaluma, fell in love with movies at a young age and attended UC Berkeley. In 1953, she published her first review, a pan of Charles Chaplin’s great “Limelight.” She reviewed films for KPFA and ran the Berkeley Cinema Guild for several years, programming must-see films for cinephiles.
Finding a home at The New Yorker in 1968, she eschewed the scholarly, rigid format of discussing films.
Her passionate attacks could be vicious. They included a rebuttal of Andrew Sarris’ “auteur theory” (“Circles and Squares”) and an argument that Orson Welles was not the primary creator of “Citizen Kane” (“Raising Kane”).
But her praises were also legendary. Her review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” was used in its entirety in the ads, and it made the movie a sensation.
In later years, she assembled a group of younger film critics (and Kael fans) — crudely dubbed “Paulettes” — to help swing the tide of opinion on certain films. These included future filmmaker Paul Schrader and former San Francisco Examiner film critic Michael Sragow (both interviewed).
The documentary shows this and more, and includes a very large selection of film clips, edited in ways to illustrate the interviewees’ thoughts and ruminations. (Sarah Jessica Parker provides the voice of Kael.)
It tries to include pro and con moments. Plenty of filmmakers complain angrily about Kael panning them; in an archival interview, David Lean says she made him wonder if he should even continue making films.
But it also argues that Kael’s enormous critical influence helped spur on — and may have been largely responsible for — the “Easy Rider, Raging Bull” Hollywood renaissance, starting with her minority praise of “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967.
The documentary wonders what Kael would be like today, in a world where powerful individual critics have been replaced by a Rotten Tomatoes collective, but where Kael’s punchy, pithy capsule reviews — published in an essential collection called “5001 Nights at the Movies” — would be a perfect fit on Twitter.
“What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” doesn’t provide an in-depth look at Kael, or at least not enough that it would have pleased Kael herself. But what it lacks in gray area , it makes up with equal looks at the black and white.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, Camille Paglia, Greil Marcus, Gina James, Sarah Jessica Parker
Written and directed by: Rob Garver
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes