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The title of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s (Tomboy, Girlhood) latest work, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), obviously has multiple meanings. First and foremost, it refers to an actual portrait that the main protagonist, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), paints. But it also denotes the film itself as a cinematic study of the lady in question, Heloise (Adele Haenel from BPM, and the supreme object of desire in Sciamma’s first feature, Water Lilies), whose flowing gown literally catches fire at one point, as if the love and desire she feels for Marianne has made her brocade frock spontaneously combust.
All that lush overdetermination is apt for a movie that’s as intricately layered, coded and gilded with symbolism as an Old Master and made by a filmmaker who is herself, as we say in English nowadays, on fire. At this point, Sciamma is practically throwing off sparks and hot coals as she enters a confident, bigger-risk-taking phase of her career. Assaying her first period film, an exquisitely executed love story that’s both formally adventurous and emotionally devastating, she sticks the landing like a UCLA gymnast in peak condition. It’s so good you’ll want to watch again in slow motion immediately afterward just to see how she does it.
Set in a remote corner of Brittany near the Atlantic coast, the story, credited solely to Sciamma, evokes art and literature that are romantic, as in the genre, and Romantic as in the period that started to truly flower just a little after 1770, the year the action is set, according to the pic’s press notes. That said, the frank but not especially explicit depiction of lesbian sexual awakening is entirely modern. Comparisons will no doubt be made to other films about artistic women in love that competed in Cannes recently, such as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (although, for my money, this is the better effort) or even Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016), a cannier comparison since the latter was adapted from Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set novel Fingersmith.
As it happens, there are no onscreen titles anchoring either the place or the time, and only very period-savvy viewers would be able to guess the time frame based on the decor, solidly colored corseted dresses and modest, unostentatious hairstyles on view here (until wigs in the very last scenes give the game away.) That’s not to say that Sciamma, set designer Thomas Grezaud and costume designer Dorothee Guiraud haven’t done their homework — quite the opposite, in fact. They nail the details, for instance the fact that in this pre-industrialized era, each of the female characters has only one or two dresses each, although more high-borne Heloise has maybe three or so, not counting the emerald-green silk gown she wears for her portrait.
Most important of all, Sciamma and her collaborators have pounded the art history section of the library and used research into real historical female painters of the period (more abundant than they would be a few generations later) to create the credible foundations for Marianne’s character. Financially semi-independent because she’s the apprentice of her more acclaimed and well-known painter father (a character we never meet), Marianne is an adept portraitist in her own right, who travels to houses to paint subjects on commission. (The work shown, excellent in its way, is all painted by artist Helene Delmaire, whose brushwork is a little freer and looser than typical French portraiture of the period, although that airier, 19th-century quality could be interpreted as a sign that Marianne is ahead of her time.)
As the film starts, she arrives at the home of a widowed Countess (Valeria Golino), who wants Marianne to paint her daughter Heloise’s picture so she can send it on to the Milanese man to whom she has betrothed Heloise without even introducing them first, as was the custom. Wistfully, the Countess recalls that her own portrait, painted by Marianne’s father, arrived at the chateau before she did when she was a young woman. Another painter, a man, tried and failed to paint Heloise because she simply refused to sit for him, and it transpires that her defiance is partly grounded in grief for an older sister, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. The Countess has therefore hired Marianne to pretend to just be a female walking companion for her daughter, who just recently came home from a convent.
To say much more about the plot apart from the fact that the two women fall in love by degrees would spoil the experience of watching how Sciamma pulls back each emotional veil. This happens with immense delicacy, via a series of walks, conversations and long-held looks between the women in which the painting as it develops practically becomes another character in the story, part of an emotional threesome. There are just a few other characters here, not counting the wave-lashed landscape, including Sophie the maid (Luana Bajrami), an artist in her own right when it comes to the embroidery hoop, who is brought gradually into the lovers’ circle of trust and in turn introduces them to a welcoming community of wise women that’s been there all along.
With this subplot, some may feel Sciamma strays into anachronism just a touch, creating a glimpse of an idealized, classless matriarchal utopia that’s more wishful thinking than realist storytelling. But it’s still a beautiful dream, especially the sequence that sees Heloise take the lead in creating art, becoming a collaborator with Marianne instead of just the object of her gaze. (Students of feminist film theory are going to be beside themselves when they see this film.) Elsewhere, the dialogue doesn’t even try to ape the locutions of 18th century speech, but just strips things back to simple utterances and statements of affection, leaving the heavy lifting to the visuals.
That said, sound plays a crucial role here, with just two different musical pieces showing up strategically to intensify a soundscape that consists otherwise entirely of natural noise, silence and the sighs of lovers. One is a strange a cappella round sung by the women, almost atonal at first but then resolving into a scorchingly intense chorale work (composed for the film by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini).
The other is a burst of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which is played once halfway through the film by Marianne to Heloise’s delight on a harpsichord. It reprises at the end, melding with a long tracking shot that pulls in on Haenel as she experiences a tempest of emotions that tracks to the musical storm she’s listening to. It’s a proper coup de theatre, literally, and may have taken away the crown for Best Performance Showing in One Shot a Woman Experiencing Cathartic Feelings as She Listens to Classical Music that’s been held by Nicole Kidman since 2004 for her work in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth.
Ultimately, Sciamma is likely to get the lioness’ share of praise for this wonderful movie, but the contributions from the cast, especially Merlant and Haenel, are huge factors in its success. The two have combustible, practically fissile chemistry, felt not just in the love scenes but from the dramatic moment when they first see one another’s faces at the end of a long bravura tracking shot. Not a moment in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is wasted, which suits a story about lovers without a moment to lose.
Production: A Lilies Films production, in co-production with ARTE France Cinema, Hold-Up Films & Productions
Cast: Noemi Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Director-screenwriter: Celine Sciamma
Producers: Benedicte Couvreur
Director of photography: Claire Mathon
Set designer: Thomas Grezaud
Costume designer: Dorothee Guiraud
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Music: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier/Arthur Simonini
Casting: Christel Baras
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Sales: mk2 Films
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