Review: Céline Sciamma's Radiant Romance 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'
by David Mouriquand
June 26, 2019
I had the misfortune of missing out on this year's Cannes Film Festival, and while I usually prefer Berlinale's chilly pleasures and the Mostra's replenishing sunshine, this year's roster made me think twice about my life choices. Thankfully, during a recent trip to Lyon, I got to catch several films during their French theatrical releases and during special Cannes retrospective screenings. It was during one of these screenings that I got to catch up with French filmmaker Céline Sciamma's fourth feature film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a breathtaking tour de force that is as mesmerizing on a stylistic level as it is rewarding on an emotional one.
Set on a remote island in Brittany circa 1770, painter Marianne (Noémie Marlant) is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of young aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The snag is that her unhappy subject refuses to pose; Héloïse mourns the death of her sister and is to be married to a noble Italian suitor she has not yet met. Marianne learns via the young housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) that her painting predecessor tried, failed and was dismissed. This time, the bride-to-be's mother, The Countess (Valeria Golino), hatches a plan: Marianne is to play the part of a companion, chaperoning Héloïse during her walks and surreptitiously observing her so that she can paint the portrait in secret. But as time passes, the two women form a profound, romantic bond that threatens the professional arrangement and Héloïse's future.
This familiar setup brings to mind another recent release – Isabel Coixet's woefully underwhelming lesbian drama Elisa & Marcela, which premiered in this year's Berlinale competition. However, the only things these two films have in common is a historical backdrop and a story of forbidden love; Sciamma's first foray into the period drama genre is a superior film on every conceivable level, and it's difficult to understate quite how intoxicating the end result is. It's a slow-burning love story that sees the filmmaker tantalizingly build up a romance, never once dipping into maudlin waters or indulging in overwrought histrionics. Sciamma, who also wrote the screenplay, never overplays any feminist angles or disingenuously crowbars in echoes to real-world issues; she instead delivers an emotionally refined and intimate evocation of deep human connection, one that is never coy but crucially never reduced to cheap erotic thrills.
Sciamma cloaks the drama with a sensual veil of tension, as well as a stunning tactility: you can smell the brushstrokes on the canvas, feel the crackle of the fires, as well as almost taste the rough chop of the Breton sea. This immersion in no small part due to directeur de la photographie Claire Mathon's stirring cinematography. Her shot compositions accentuate colour schemes around blues, reds and whites, and similarly to Sciamma's careful handling of tone, Mathon never stylistically showboats. Her framing and control of chiaroscuro feel natural but nonetheless reveal meticulous aesthetic choices, ones which imbue certain scenes with a painterly, at times oneiric, grace.
I struggle to recall a film as elegantly evocative: from the covered harpsichord Marianne plays, to the light tissue that covers the bottom half of the lovers' faces as they walk on the beach, symbolically mirroring their romantic oppression at the hands of patriarchal conventions, this is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. The imagery is subtly suffused with meaning, and Sciamma's commitment to an economy of dialogue allows the actors' gestures to speak volumes about their states of mind. This trust is rewarded by Noémie Marlant and Adèle Haenel, who make many of the wordless tableaus speak volumes. The perfectly cast pair ignite the screen with restrained yet deeply soulful performances. The camera observes their faces with the same care Marianne does Héloïse's, beautifully capturing stolen glances and nascent aching, with particular focus on Marlant's engulfing brown eyes and the rawness of Haenel's facial expressions.
I would be remiss not to mention the vital part music plays in this film, specifically its sparing use. Sciamma boldly opts for no score, choosing instead to use diegetic sounds to heighten sensory immersion. There's no emotional panhandling here, the music never insistently pushing the viewer towards emotional catharsis. The effect is that of sustained power, and when Vivaldi's Four Seasons plays in the final scene, the impact rivals the final shot of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, another film which managed to capture the emotional hurricane of first true love.
The superb scene that gives the film its title also features music: one night, Marianne and Héloïse find themselves on a beach, surrounded by women in front of a bonfire. The flicker of the flames in the night accentuates an ethereal quality and the crescendo of a female chant gradually complements the dream-like feel of the scene. The chant morphs into a pagan incantation, as if something close to mystical is being shared between our protagonists. The beautifully eerie quality of this moment is carried across later when Marianne is repeatedly faced with brief apparitions of Héloïse, dressed in white and bathed in a celestial light. Simple though the flourish may be, contrasting the darkness of the empty corridors of the chateau with otherworldly bright lighting draws on gothic horror; the effect, as well as the dual spectre of bride and ghost, is transfixing. It provokes an arresting sense of foreboding which has an understated payoff linked to the recounted myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a literary parallel which poignantly complements the theme of regret & remembrance. These apparitions sent chills down my spine on more than one occasion, furthering my belief that some of the most impactful and scary beats aren't always to be found in horror films.
To conclude with a smidge of awards chat. While Bong Joon-ho's Parasite (another Cannes film I mercifully caught up with) is a more than worthy winner of this year's top prize at Cannes, it is not quite Portrait of a Lady on Fire's equal for my money. Sciamma rightfully bagged the "Queer Palme" and the festival's Best Screenplay prize for her efforts, and although beautifully written, the scenario does feel like the film's most conventional quality, especially when compared to the direction, performances and cinematography. The film is also impressive in the way it is a distant leap from the director's previous contemporary socio-realist films (Water Lillies, Tomboy, and Girlhood) and yet retains similar thematic grounds: Sciamma's films deal with stories of self-discovery and the female experience with great empathy. I can't help but feel a trick was missed by not rewarding it the Palme d'Or, an award which would have made Sciamma only the second woman in 72 years to win the coveted prize. The gong would have marked a deserved win for a sumptuously crafted film that subverts the male gaze historically associated with art history and also show recent, utterly objectionable Cannes releases what's what. Here's looking at you, Abdellatif Kechiche, you and your vapid, sleazily toxic Mektoub diptych (and inevitably soon-to-be triptych, to my great despair).
Accolades aside, don't miss out on Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful film that stuck with me much in the same way my tear-soaked Kleenex did when the film ended. Just thinking and writing about it forms a sizeable lump in my throat. It is certain to be the most captivating film of the year, as well as a timeless classic in the making.
David's Rating: 5 out of 5
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