A painter named Marianne is sent to rural Brittany in 1770 to make a portrait of Héloïse, a young woman about to be married to a Milanese gentleman. But Héloïse does not want to be painted, or married, and so the work is difficult going. Marianne must observe her subject in secret, all while slowly gaining her trust.
There are no men in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.
I’ve been racking my brains and I think that’s correct. There’s a man rowing a boat at the start, taking a painter named Marianne to the Brittany chateau where she is to compose a wedding portrait of a woman who does not want to be painted (or, indeed, married). Later, he returns to fetch Marianne when the work is finally done.
That’s it. There are no other men in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Instead, there are four central, inimitable women: Marianne (Noémie Merlant), Marianne’s employer La Comtesse (Valeria Golino), their maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the reluctant bride. No men and four women, four women who spend most of the film watching each other, looking at and upon and through their compatriots with ease.
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This is the female gaze, put resplendently on display in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. This astonishingly beautiful and meditative film, directed and written by female director Céline Sciamma, is both a period drama and achingly modern. It examines the role of women in the 18th century, forced to marry against their will and unable to make decisions for themselves, while simultaneously exploring the depths of female desire, passion and longing. It is, it must be said, extraordinary.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire begins with Marianne’s commission. The daughter of a celebrated painter and prodigiously talented in her own right, Marianne is forbidden from working with male nudes and thus must content herself with teaching other women or painting female portraits.
This one, in particular, is very interesting. Marianne’s employer La Comtesse informs her that her beautiful and intelligent daughter Héloïse, only recently returned from a convent, must not know that Marianne is painting her, for fear that she will refuse this advantageous marriage. Instead, Marianne must observe her in secret, under the guise of companionship, and work on the portrait under the cover of darkness.
The first half of the film is taken up with this illicit ruse, Marianne watching Héloïse, stealing glances at the curve of her ears or the gold of her curls when the hood of her coat falls open. (The costumes in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire are incredibly arresting, from Marianne’s heavy ochre gown to the green duchesse satin dress that Marianne wants Héloïse to pose in for the portrait. When shot by cinematographer Claire Mathon against the blues and whites of the Brittany coastline, the result is mesmerising.)
Over time, though, the ruse of companionship blossoms into something more. Soon, there is an intimacy between Héloïse and Marianne that, suddenly, becomes romantic.
In another film, in the hands of another director, maybe the intensity with which their relationship evolves would seem unbelievable. But Sciamma shoots the two actors with a focus on their eyes, watching Marianne gaze at Héloïse and vice versa.
At first, Marianne thinks that she’s looking merely to commit details to memory, but Sciamma and we, the audience, know better. There’s so much passion and drama in every look that the pair shoot each other, glancing through roaring fires and over crashing waves and over the top of an easel. Héloïse looks at Marianne like she’s trying to figure out a particularly difficult puzzle. Marianne looks at Héloïse with the intensity of an artist gazing upon a work of art.
And this is what Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is, really. With Sciamma’s skilful direction and cinematographer Claire Mathon (who also shot the equally haunting and elegiac Atlantics, streaming on Netflix now) capturing the raw beauty of the Brittany coastline, this French film lingers in your mind long after you’ve seen it. Credit must also be given to the performances of Merlant and Haenel, which both feel so anguished and full of longing that watching them fall in love is like intruding on a private moment.
It’s unsurprising that Portrait Of A Lady On Fire was such a hit with critics in 2019, nor that it won awards at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the Queer Palme. It’s only a shame that the movie was not chosen by France to be its entrant at the 2020 Academy Awards in the Best International Film Category. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is definitely worthy of the award.
Not only is it one of the best French films of the year, but it’s one of the year’s best. Period. A sumptuous, passionate masterpiece that demands to be seen in cinemas.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is in cinemas in the UK on 28 February.
Images: Lilies Films, Getty
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
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