portrait of a lady on fire
DIRECTOR: Celine Sciamma (tomboy, girlhood)
STARRING: adele haenel, noemie merlant, luana bajrami, and valeria golino
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
In 1770 the young daughter of a French countess develops a mutual attraction to the female artist commissioned to paint her wedding portrait.
The title of the new film from writer director Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, has multiple meanings: early in the film it shows the actual portrait, the titular lady’s manner of dealing with the troubling vagaries of life is concerning to her family and at one point someone actually catches fire briefly. This film is so very much more than another costume drama, it is a touching and compelling presentation of the love between two people separated by the decorum of their society.
Portrait is a study of the enigmatic Héloïse, the subject that Marianne has been commissioned to paint a portrait of prior to Héloïse’s marriage to a wealthy Venetian. Marianne is not the first who has tried and Héloïse’s mother, The Countess is becoming increasingly exasperated - she just wants to capture her daughter as she is before the rest of her life begins. Marianne is introduced to Héloïse as a companion for walks around their isolated island, though tasked by The Countess to observe Héloïse during this time and paint in secret. Marianne, however begins to find this seemingly benign task more difficult than previously thought for a growing number of reasons.
The beautiful yet bleak setting of the film coupled with the small number of characters on screen, really works well to complement the film’s exploration of the women’s relationship. Unlike in a typical period drama they are essentially alone on this little island with no distractions, save for the looming return of Héloïse’s mother after an extended absence to Venice.
It is worth noting that there is little use of music in the film, but what is used, is to fantastic effect. A piece played on harpsichord from memory early on by Marianne for Héloïse is used again in the final scene to truly great effect.
Portrait is a measured yet emotive exploration of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne. We see how much Marianne’s company beings to mean to Héloïse and how knowledge of Marianne’s commission as the ostensible reason for their interactions feels to Héloïse like a betrayal - exemplified in the powerful scene where Héloïse is shown the finished painting; Sciamma’s dialogue here is excellent as questions cut deeper than their face revealing glimpses of underlying feelings.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire presents and explores a relationship that stands the test of time. Much more than a typical period drama, it reaches profound heights and will stay with you for some time to come.