Queer Film Fest 2020: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ and ‘All About My Mother’

Today, we cross the Atlantic for a look at how queer stories are told overseas, focusing on the period lesbian romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the iconic All About My Mother.

To be frank, I put these two together just because I wanted to make sure I wrote about them. I saw Portrait at the end of last year, but it was a distracted and rushed viewing. I haven’t seen Mother for 10 or more years, though I’ve been meaning to revisit it, especially after falling in love with director Pedro Almodóvar all over again with last year’s masterpiece Pain and Glory.

On the surface, they don’t have a lot in common: Portrait director Céline Sciamma is working in a swooning romantic mode, and Almódovar is in a boldly melodramatic milieu. But at their heart, both films are about the strength of women in the face of a world pitted against them. They’re also both about the idea of being seen, truly seen, by the world and, better yet, by someone who loves you.

That’s most true in Portrait, the tale of a doomed relationship between an 18th-century painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and the noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), she has been hired to depict in a portrait for Héloïse’s suitor in Madrid. Héloïse, though, doesn’t want to marry and has no interest in sitting for a portrait, so Marianne is instructed to paint in secret after the women spend their days together. So, amid meals and readings and walks on the beach, Marianne sneaks glimpses, trying to memorize every facet of Héloïse’s being. It’s what anyone does when they’re falling in love with someone, and sure enough, Marianne does fall for Héloïse.

Héloïse soon figures out what’s going on and demands to see Marianne’s work. Wholly dissatisfied, she surprises Marianne by agreeing to sit for the portrait, and the women work together; moreover, we learn that just as Marianne is looking intently at Héloïse as she paints, the muse is looking right back at the artist and capturing her, too. We see that Marianne’s original painting did capture Héloïse, in a way: It captured the Héloïse who was hollow and empty of any love or affection for her future husband. The final work, the one the women collaborated on, shows us a Héloïse who’s full of life and love. So, too, does the self-portrait Marianne sketches in one of Héloïse’s books.

Threaded through the film are references to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The former is a poet whose lover has died. He forces his way into the underworld to rescue her and is told that he can leave with her, but only if he doesn’t look at her until after they’ve escaped. At the last moment, he turns to glance and her, and she’s thereafter trapped forever. Héloïse explains that he’s made “the poet’s choice,” that Eurydice meant more to him “as a memory than as a person,” The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis wrote.

“Even before she and Marianne are forced apart by Héloïse’s marriage, the implication of this assessment is clear; Héloïse knows that, ultimately, she and Marianne will exist to each other solely as memories. All the more reason, then, to ensure that the artifacts of their relationship are imbued with both of their spirits,” Giorgis writes.

Memories of loves gone by haunt Mother, as well. Manuela (the incandescent Cecilia Roth) must learn to move on with her life after the sudden death of her 17-year-old son Esteban. She returns to Barcelona in an effort to track down her son’s father, a transgender sex worker named Lola (Toní Canto), but she winds up forming a family with people whose lives were also touched by Lola, including her fellow sex worker Agrado (Antonia San Juan) and a nun named Rosa (Penelope Cruz) whom Lola has also impregnated and infected with HIV. Manuela becomes Rosa’s surrogate mother and, following her death in childbirth, the adoptive mother of her son, also named Esteban — which was also Lola’s name in her former life.

It’s a little shocking to watch this film more than 20 years after its release and see how very forward-thinking and open-hearted Almódovar was in crafting its transgender characters. Agrado is remarkably well-adjusted, functioning as both the film’s comic relief and as its heart, as seen in this sensational monologue:

Agrado’s making sure that she’s seen there — seen as a woman, for one, and seen as a human who’s willing to go through hell to be who she knows she is. “It costs a lot to be authentic, ma’am,” Agrado tells her audience (i.e., us). “And one can’t be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”

In a lot of ways, I guess, that’s the lesson you can take from all of the films I’ve written about. Through these movies, fictional or documentary, queer folk can see the kind of lives that we want to live, and we learn lessons and find tools to help us build those lives.

Up next: Beautiful Thing and Love, Simon

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