I have never walked away from a theater screening with the following thought:
“That movie felt like an Emily Dickinson poem.”
And as a Dickinson enthusiast, I am always looking for creative pieces that are comparable, and yet, in generally any comparisons of nowadays offered against the poet’s work, I am at best, skeptic—and at worst, insufferable in my opposition.
I say this to reassure the significance of the following conclusion:
If Dickinson could’ve made a movie in the same manner she composed, this was it.
(Side note: I’d expected to find it in “Bright Star”—which, interestingly enough, was a film on the end of the life of another poet, John Keats—but I didn’t)
Admittedly, I have shirked from most movies in recent years because of many of the same reasons I shy away from so much of consumable popular culture, as Emily said once, “…they talk of Hallowed things—aloud—and embarrass my Dog,” and “I haven’t had that confidence in fraud which many exercise.”
Take from that what you will, but for the sensitive souls who cannot sleep for an inability to ignore the chaos we already find inescapable during our days—well, you likely understand perfectly.
Back to topic…
Disclaimer: No spoilers. Also, this is a French film, and I am pulling solely from the English translation of it for this post.
“Think me happy or unhappy, whatever reassures you. But do not think me guilty,”Héloïse, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Language. This quote is arguably one of the longer lines of the film—and yet—because of its simplicity, it packs an immense charge. The dialogue in this movie takes no liberties with excess. The lines deliver what needs to be said—and even more importantly, what doesn’t—with striking precision. There is no belaboring the point, no superfluous chatter—it is as if Dickinson’s poems wrote the dialogue (ahem, minus hymn meter).
Sound. This movie sounds like real life. It has no (needs no) score underneath to help clue you in on what to feel, to help push the intensity, the feeling, or the suspense. Instead, the sound of the film is reduced to how we experience life and lets you play an active role within—in this case, ever-present breathing, the scraping of a brush on canvas, and plenty of lengthy, pulsing silences. Each of these elements are also equally cherished—and thus so reminiscent of Dickinson’s exacting word choice, the complexity and depth of life behind her brief phrases, and her willingness to leave us in the quiet fall of midair—
Proximity. Portrait of a Lady on Fire operates on what feels like a perpetual zoom lens in order to mimic how we see our own experiences each day. In fact, we never actually see the entirety of the home in which the majority of this movie takes place, just as I cannot see the entirety of the room in which I write at this moment without turning around and surveying.
Instead, the film leaves you in the smallest pockets of space, and thus drives your focus on living the experience, and Dickinson’s work does the same. Consider a vast majority of her primary settings—a loaded gun standing in a corner, a soldier traversing amongst the dead after a battle, the grave itself, and I could go on and on (and on…).
Experience. Because of the concentrated effect on the purest of our senses in this movie (that comes through the lack of typical overbearing stimuli), you feel as though you are living it as a bystander. Whether through the casual hum of our own breathing, the single lens of our own vision, or the lack of audible music as we move across our life experiences, this film mimics Dickinson’s first-person, accessible narration. The movie is experienced as though you are a character within it. Embarrassingly enough—or perhaps as credit to the skills of the director—in the profound silences within the film, I could hear the usual banter in my mind, “Well, say something. What will you say? Respond with something”—I felt like I were a part of the film, a piece of the characters—I could say that a thousand times over with Dickinson’s poems.
Relatability: As often in Dickinson’s poetry, a line reaches forward as though it is being delivered to you. When the following line is delivered in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, who among us could not feel as though we are being addressed:
“Say what burdens your heart. I believed you braver,”Héloïse, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
“Sweet—You forgot—but I remembered,”Dickinson
“Your Riches—taught me—Poverty,”Dickinson
The complexity and the simplicity of humanity can often simultaneously exist in Dickinson’s poems—and in many cases, the same could be said of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Depiction. Narrowing to gist, this film is about a painter who is tasked to paint the wedding portrait of a young woman who doesn’t wish to be married. The ensuing connection between them is then strikingly sincere, never hollow or objectifying—and in this vein, it mirrors and is reminiscent of so much of Dickinson’s works, namely, “Promise This—When You be Dying—” and “I cannot live with You—.”
The scenes found within either these poems or Portrait of a Lady on Fire do not try to be flattering, they do not try to be beautiful through ignoring faults or grasping pretense—they only are beautiful.
So, with its stylistic proximity to Dickinson, of course I loved it. And if you haven’t yet, go see it for yourself.