Céline Sciamma’s filmography is more about quality than quantity: she only directed three (now four) feature films and one short film (although her credits as a writer are more plentiful), yet every one of those films felt like a shockwave: “Waterlilies” first, then “Tomboy” and probably her most famous one yet “Girlhood”.
All of them focus on women and on their relationships with one another (both platonic and romantic), Sciamma bringing with each a certain sensitivity and inventiveness, never taking the art of filmmaking for granted but always trying to create new images, bring forth new ideas.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows perfectly in those footsteps even as she, for the first time, delves into period drama.
The film follows Noémie Merlant (“Heaven Will Wait”, “Curiosa”) as Marianne, a painter sent to the cold shores of Brittany in 1770 to paint the portrait of Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel (“Love At First Fight”, “The Unknown Girl”), a young lady forced to go back home from the convent after the death of her only sibling, an older sister whose fate (a marriage to a Milanese aristocrat) she now has to take on her shoulders.
The painting is commissioned by Héloise’s mother in secret, as the bride-to-be refuses the marriage, and therefore, refuses to pose. Marianne, pretending to be a walking companion, will have to paint her model in secret. This new relationship will, however, soon turn to more as the two women fall in love while creating the portrait that will separate them.
The love story at the center of the film is therefore doomed from the beginning, but this allows Sciamma to explore love not only in the present tense but also as a memory carried within us.
Because Sciamma takes the necessary time to build it, the romance feels organic and real. Each line spoken by Noémie Merlant or Adèle Haenel is weighed with meaning and power, the dialogue written with meticulousness and poetry by Sciamma herself.
Most of all though, this is by the act of looking that the two main characters fall for each other. Painting, just like film making, comes from looking, and this is what drives the film from beginning to end.
It is with each look that they fall in love and with each look that they create art, and it is through Sciamma’s gaze (and that of her majoritarily female crew) that we as spectators get to see them see each other.
This gaze, as opposed to the mainstream male gaze, is based on equality and collaboration. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an ode to art, and especially the making of it.
Sciamma has already stated several times that the act of painting can be easily paralleled to filmmaking – the relationship between Marianne & Héloïse, painter and model, then becoming a stand-in for the collaboration between actors and directors.
This collaboration is central to the film and to the ideas Sciamma aims to propagate: artists working together, just like two people in a relationship, should stand on equal ground and create something together rather than one having power over the other.
Pretty early in the film, Marianne reveals her real identity to Héloïse. I am not spoiling a major plot twist: this revelation is rather the point in time when the film can truly begin, as it is only by sharing and collaborating that Marianne can paint a true work of art and that her relationship with Héloïse can blossom.
Similarly, Héloïse’s servant Sophie – played by Luàna Bajrami (“Happy Birthday”, “School’s Out”) – strikes a sincere friendship with the two women that makes all class boundaries disappear: it is the collaboration between people, and especially between women, that prevails here.
Even Héloïse’s mother, who could act as a “villain” as she is the one planning the arranged marriage, rises above that one-dimensional status, not only thanks to Sciamma’s clever script, but also to the depth with which Valeria Golino (“Rain Man”, “Hot Shots!”) plays her.
Choice and representation are two other major themes that the period drama explores and that will undoubtedly strike a chord with modern audiences, without the film ever being weighed down by it.
It all flows perfectly within the story, embellished by Claire Mathon’s cinematography (who also worked on “Stranger By the Lake” or “My King”, among others).
Composition and lighting are masterfully used to create paintings of their own without relying on an ostentatious decor. On the contrary, the sets are stripped down to the minimum in what looks like realistic scenery that lets the characters take the central place.
Even the use of music is sparse, which paradoxically demonstrates its importance. As an ode to art, Portrait of a Lady on Fire showcases its power not only through images but also by having rare but powerful musical moments.
Vivaldi’s Storm, a segment from his Four Seasons, is here used twice in a beautiful example of the constant dialogue between audiences and art. The piece obviously stands on its own, but it hits the characters as well as the audience much more the second time we hear it because, just like a portrait or a film, it now carries and represents a memory forever stuck in time.
Without a doubt one of the best films of the year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not one to miss. It will make you feel, cry, laugh, think, and most of all light a fire that will linger in your mind long after.