Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Time Out says
Céline Sciamma’s glorious period romance is a masterclass of swelling passions in a time of stifling restraint.
Céline Sciamma is one of the most exciting young French filmmakers around: her ‘Water Lilies’, ‘Tomboy’ and ‘Girlhood’ are all intimate, intense studies of young girls or young women at points of profound change in their lives. Those earlier films were all contemporary, realist tales. Now, with ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, she has crafted a powerfully original story of art and love, almost entirely set on a Breton island in the eighteenth century, and one that operates on the level of a painterly, radical reverie – just somewhere to the left of reality. It’s Sciamma’s most cerebral and challenging work to date, and one that’s full of ideas about artists and muses, the female gaze and solidarity. It feels stately and quiet at first, and you wonder if it might end up being too polite, too controlled. But it harbours a rising passion that’s devastating when it bursts into life.
It begins with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching an art class that throws us into an extended flashback to a pivotal moment in her life that takes up almost the entire film. We see her being rowed by a boatful of men to a remote island: she’s a professional painter for hire, and she’s arriving there to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman whose mother wants a portrait of her to send to her prospective husband, an aristocrat in Milan.
Already one painter has come and gone. Marianne’s challenge is to get Héloïse to sit for her during the time they live in close quarters in her family home, talking walks on the stormy beach or in the nearby dunes. Marianne does get her subject to sit for her – but what happens is far more interesting than just superficial success as a growing bond develops between them that’s reflected in the curious development of the paintings. A bond emerges, too, with the only other person left in the house when Héloïse’s mother travels away: a servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who gets help from both women when a crisis emerges in her life.
‘Portrait’ might be set in the 1770s but it feels totally contemporary and relevant in its energy and in what it says about art and who’s making it, and how that affects how we view the world and each other. It’s also an intensely moving evocation of female love and friendship, without ever being coy or unnecessarily erotic. It’s bold and proud. One of the many winning things about this film is that it exists in a wider world dominated by the desires and rules of men but Sciamma strips men out of the film almost entirely, apart from during its bookends. It’s deeply romantic and also deeply thoughtful – an electric combination.
Cast and crew