Céline Sciamma’s newest film couldn’t arrive on screen soon enough. Naturally the wait for Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) seemed an eternity as it finally made it’s way into global theaters and quickly became the hottest movie around. Sciamma is becoming somewhat of a household name and Portrait of a Lady on Fire cements her place as a modern auteur who is capturing audience’s hearts and likewise shedding audience’s tears.
With three films behind her, Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2015) being a trilogy of coming of age drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire changes the scene and explores 18th century Brittany. The film opens with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching an art class in Paris when some of the students discover the titular painting, a woman stood alone before the ocean, with the hemline of her dress in flames. This provokes the backstory as we see Marianne arrive on an island, meeting a countess (Valeria Golino) who has hired Marianne to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who is to be married to a Milanese nobleman. If he approves then Heloïse will be taken away to begin a new life. However, Héloïse refuses to have her portrait drawn as she doesn’t want to be married, thus making painting her a little more complicated. Marianne under the disguise of being her companion for walks, must paint her subject secretly.
The layered storytelling is so engrossing that one can enjoy the film on several different levels. Sciamma herself has labelled the film as a ‘manifesto on the female gaze’ and yet, as integral as that is, as poignant, the film offers so much more. This is a lesson in the female gaze no doubt with the theme of “if you look at me, who do I look at?” supporting the entire premise. Throughout the mesmerizing performances from both Haenel and Merlant is a back and forth of really seeing one another, returning each look that the other is dishing out. There is an eradication of power dynamics, and an equal respect for one another which juxtaposes a world in which women are put in their place as the subject of a gaze, with no reply. After the first portrait is completed, Héloïse is distraught. She asks “is this how you see me?” as she is angered not by the deception but at a total lack of life in the painting. Her displeasure is summed up when she says “the fact it isn’t close to me, that I understand, but I find it sad it isn’t close to you.”
The romance blossoms steadily, taking it’s time to come to fruition. A breathtaking account of love for the ages which intertwines the idea of love with the politics of the time and in many ways, the politics of today. The film also balances a subplot which walks the tightrope of taboo as the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), struggles with an unwanted pregnancy and therefore, abortion. This adds strength to the relationship between the three, building a bond quite unbreakable and driving the narrative forward.
A particular highlight of the film is the stunning visuals, the cinematography (Claire Mathon) aided by the costume design (Dorothée Guiraud) makes for some exception shots. The dark green of Héloïse’s dress against the blue of the waves and sky above and the sandy shores she stands upon. Also, the use of diegetic sound is timely as use of a score overall is sparse. The scene which will stick in most people’s minds has a brilliant use of music (Para One, Arthur Simonini) that is truly haunting, bringing a surreal aspect to the movie for that 5 minute period. Finally the screenplay is genius from Sciamma. Her screenplay is extremely airtight and is essentially what elevates the film, deservedly winning Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival.
Portrait of a Lady on fire is pretty much a perfect film. This is Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece, that’s not to do a disservice to her other works. It strikes the balance between having intellectual concepts portrayed on screen, but with a closely integrated story that explores grand ideas in simple ways. Every performance is as powerful or as subtle as necessary, the camera work is a masterstroke and above all, every striking moment will stay with you. You’ll be left glued to your seat long after the credits roll. Sciamma doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.