Sapphic Cinema: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite

Hello and welcome to Sapphic Cinema, a column series that resembles Sufjan Stevens’ series of albums about American states, in that each is a beloved masterpiece I haven’t done one in a long time, and it’s increasingly clear I will never get to them all.

But I have returned because writing about the lesbian film canon is one of my favorite things, and I have more to say. In fact, this time, I have two whole movies worth of things to say, so strap in for a piece with a word count that’s higher than two French lesbians whomst have smeared their armpits with a green sex ointment.

The two movies under the microscope today are Ammonite (2020) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). I had originally intended only to cover the former film, but recently, the two became inextricably tied. That’s thanks to SNL, which gifted us with Lesbian Period Drama, a trailer for a film in the tradition of Ammonite and POLOF, in which two women find love despite the cruelties of the patriarchy and the challenges of locating female sex organs under eight layers of pantaloons, aided only by the light of a single, guttering candle.

Lesbian Period Drama is wonderful because of its specificity (though the all-time best queer sketch the show has produced was the Kristen Stewart Totino’s ad, which is not really trying to be funny so much as it is trying to asphyxiate me). Lesbian Period Drama lovingly skewers tropes which would be totally illegible to anyone who had not, like you and me, steeped themselves in the historical queer film canon, from Fingersmith to Viola di Mare. And SNL’s faux trailer is correct that–even for a genre that tends to fall back on a relatively small set of tropes–Ammonite and POLOF have a lot in common.

Let’s start by a side-by-side plot comparison:

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a brilliant but frustrated artist named Marianne is hired to act as a companion to a wealthy young woman named Héloïse. Héloïse’s mental health is suffering because she is being forced to marry a stranger after the tragic death of her sister. The best cure for this inconvenient malady is understood to be long, silent walks along the rocky coastline of Brittany. But, little does Héloïse know, in the dead of night, Marianne is secretly painting her portrait, with the hopes of using it to secure her engagement to her fiance.


Over time, the two women forge a connection. Marianne dusts off an old harpsichord, thus bringing music into the joyless home. Héloïse undergoes a symbolic, healing plunge in the ocean. The two women help the maid get an abortion and attend an all-female witch choir performance(which might be my favorite subplot of any movie ever).

Slowly the tension escalates from shy glances, to symbolic floral needlepoints, to unnecessary hand touching. Finally, after the longing becomes so unbearable that Héloïse CATCHES ON LITERAL FIRE, the two engage in lovemaking so beautiful you sense god hand-selected the sunshine particularly for the occasion.

They fall in love with the terror and fervor and anger of two people who know the world is waiting in the wings to tear them apart. And all too soon, it does. Marianne completes the portrait, Héloïse is sent off to her Milanese suitor, and the only further connections the two have are mediated by art. Marianne sees Héloïse’s portrait in a gallery, and finds a secret message in the painting, meant only for her. Later, the two attend the same symphony, never speaking, but sharing a secret communion.

Meanwhile, in Ammonite, a brilliant but frustrated archaeologist named Mary is hired to act as a companion to a wealthy young woman named Charlotte. Charlotte’s mental health is suffering because she is trapped in a loveless marriage after the tragic death of her daughter. The best cure for this inconvenient malady is understood to be long, silent walks along the rocky coastline of Lyme Regis. Charlotte’s husband is only too happy to go along with this, since it allows him to continue his vacation alone and leave Charlotte behind to pass her days being rolled into the ocean in a small shed for vigorous, fully clothed swims.

When this course of treatment succeeds only in giving her pneumonia, Mary takes Charlotte in to convalesce. At first, Mary treats Charlotte with coldness verging on contempt, all while secretly drawing her portrait in the dead of night.


Over time, the two forge a connection. Charlotte dusts off an old piano, bringing music into the joyless home. (Although, given how brutally out of tune it is, its salubrious effects are doubtful.) The two share a symbolic plunge in the ocean (this time without the assistance of a rolling death trap). Slowly the tension escalates from shy glances, to symbolic floral needlepoints, to awkward bed-sharing. And then one night, overcome by the eroticism of trowel maintenance, the two engage in some really ambitious sex (the hotness of which is slightly marred by the viewer’s hygienic concerns relating to the fact that Mary has one dress and no toilet paper).

The two women cling to each other for a brief, desperate time, until Charlotte returns to her husband. Later, Charlotte invites Mary to come live in her guest room, but Mary declines. The final interaction we witness is mediated by fossils. The two stare at each other from across a glass case, containing Mary’s (uncredited) discovery, bound together by a secret as invisible to the men around them as the fossils under their feet.


So yeah, there’s some overlap there. But here’s the case I want to make: the differences between these two films are much more interesting (and tell us much more about the state of queer filmmaking) than their similarities.

Ammonite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire have nearly identical premises. Both films feature naturalistic sound design and lighting, and each, as the SNL parody points out, has roughly twelve lines of dialogue. Yet Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exquisite, timeless work of art, while Ammonite is a paint-by-numbers costume drama that will be forgotten by this time next year. Comparing the two movies is like watching a cooking show where two bakers have the same ingredients and the same recipes, but only one produces an edible petit four.


So how is it that two movies with so much in common feel so different? I don’t think we can lay the blame on Kate Winslet (who is so consistently wonderful that we are in danger of taking her for granted) or Saoirse Ronan (whose extraordinary talent needs no stronger testament than fact that we have all learned how to pronounce her name). It’s true they lack some of the natural chemistry of POLOF‘s leads, but that seems to largely be a function of the fact that the script discourages them from talking or smiling. And once they are finally allowed to consummate their desire, they do so with aplomb and conviction. The problem certainly isn’t the age gap, although some Puritans on Twitter tried to make a thing out of it.

No, we can actually get closer to the truth by focusing on the technical choices which brought these two stories to life in such different ways.

Ammonite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire exist in similar times and places, and yet they inhabit different atmospheric worlds. While each of these films is long on visuals and short on dialogue, the lighting and cinematography produce wholly different effects. POLOF is drowning in light and color. Every surface the camera touches–from the sea to the nape of Héloïse’s neck–aren’t so much lit as alight, glowing from within.

Ammonite, meanwhile, looks like it was shot by a crew of Dementors, who drained it of all color save a gray, consumptive pallor.


While both films have been described as “painterly,” and Ammonite does feature some gorgeous shots, it primarily uses its visual language to communicate what it assumes to be the abject misery of the female condition. At first, I was inclined to be understanding about this choice, since I assumed the film was set in midwinter. But then, we go visit Mary’s ex (Fiona Shaw, who cheerfully refuses to be dragged down by the pervading air of bleakness) and discover that it’s actually tulip-bedecked springtime!

Suddenly, this film has more color palettes than The Wizard of Oz and employs them with roughly the same degree of subtlety.


The sound design of these movies is another place where they’re superficially similar, but leave totally different impressions. Both films almost entirely eschew incidental music, instead asking us to listen to the crash of waves, the rustle of silk, the creak of old wood.

But the auditory sparseness in POLOF highlights the beauty of this windswept Themyscira. It reveals a space uncluttered by excess noise, that leaves room for characters to explore their inner lives and to take pleasure in their senses. Ammonite uses the same collection of sounds, but it layers them in this really clumsy way where there’s TOTAL SILENCE, broken only by the DEAFENING ROAR of someone cracking an egg (which is invariably spoiled). The effect is to highlight all the empty space in these characters’ lives, which is filled not with meaningful pursuits, but regret and unreachable loneliness.

Then there is the attitude of each film toward its protagonist’s occupation. Both movies give us lots of shots of these women at work: Marianne hunched over a painting and Mary dusting off some petrified fish bones. Both women take their craft seriously, and both are embittered by the professional hurdles placed in front of them by men. But only Marianne seems to derive pleasure or meaning from her work. The purity of her expression is free from whatever external constraints are placed upon it. Mary, meanwhile, pursues her vocation joylessly.


Maybe that’s because Marianne is a younger woman than Mary, the cliffs of her soul as yet unbattered by the patriarchy’s rough waves. But here’s the problem with that: by framing Mary’s life as devoid of meaning or happiness because of men, you end up defining her experience completely in relation to men!

This holds true not just for Mary’s character, but the other women of Ammonite. The film’s very first shot is a maid scrubbing a floor in the British Museum, only for a group of men to stomp all over her labor with all the rude indelicacy of the metaphor they are meant to represent.


Compare this to the quiet satisfaction the characters in Portrait of a Lady on Fire take in the mundane events of their lives, which, though austere, are full of the physical pleasures of food, wine, a pipe in front of the fire.

At this point, I think you see what I’m driving at: though neither of these films give us a traditionally happy ending, only one of them is truly unhappy. Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s director, Céline Sciamma, is devoted to illuminating the ways that women at all time and in all situations create joy and meaning in every way available to them. Her characters have rich, full stories, and the fact that men consider them to be mere footnotes is men’s fucking problem. Ammonite‘s Francis Lee, meanwhile, cannot imagine the historical female existence in terms other than bitterness and disappointment. In his world, women’s relationships with each other are either short-lived flings or silent wars of attrition with no prize for the victor.

Ammonite is particularly distressing when paired with Kate Winslet’s other recent outing in Mare of Easttown. Both felt like one of the most vibrant actors of the last three decades–who cut her teeth getting spun around by Jack Dawson and chasing a patch of sunshine in Sense and Sensibility–had been held at gunpoint by the dour police and forbidden to brush her hair. JUST CAST KATE WINSLET IN ROLES WHERE SHE CAN SMILE, GODDAMMIT. SHE SEEMS LIKE A FUN PERSON AND SHE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO BE HAPPY IN HER 40s.


And it seems reductive to assert that the issue here is that one film had a female director and the other didn’t, so I won’t. Because I trust you to do it for me.

I fear I’ve spent too much time focusing on the shortcomings of Ammonite and not enough praising the glories of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but what can one say? To call a work of art a masterpiece is to admit your powerlessness in the face of it; the whole point of visiting the Sistine Chapel is to stand there gaping and shut the fuck up.

POLOF is a work of art about art itself, and its central tension is between Marianne’s attempt to capture Héloïse on the canvas, and her inescapable awareness of the fact that she must let her go. In the end, it is about love free of possession, a moral neatly illustrated in the film’s retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. Portrait of a Lady on Fire embraces the idea that love exists in the taking and in the letting go. Ammonite rejects this. And that is what makes one film a triumph while the other is a tragedy.

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