Well this was absolutely sensational. It was also the final film I saw in the cinema before Coronavirus closed them (cheery thought). PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is sensual, appropriately painterly and with a huge heart. Love stories are seldom this flawlessly presented.
A talented but unappreciated painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of an aristocrat (Adèle Haenel) to attract a potential suitor for marriage. But Héloïse has resisted all previous offers of marriage and portraiture so Marianne must paint her subject from memory as they take daily walks along the coast of Brittany. As their relationship grows and Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) leaves them alone for a time, passion intervenes.
The landscape, the colours and lighting, the meticulous framing, are all dazzling. From the early playful scene where the two leads are trying to not be seen by the other stealing glances, the shot constructed in such a way that their profiles obscure the other from view, every aspect of director Céline Sciamma’s filmmaking process is meticulous. Claire Mathon’s camerawork can make scenes grand or intimate, but always perfectly in control.
We see that female artists in this period are sometimes “tolerated” but never acknowledged. Marianne is only allowed to paint female subjects, has limited avenues to refine her technical skill and what work of hers that is exhibited is often attributed to her artist father.
In most romantic dramas, the discovery of deception would be the lowest point, the “all is lost” moment. But here it’s only the beginning and the core relationship moves past it and passion continues to grow beyond it. Marianne feels terrible about her deception of a woman she has grown close to, but is under no illusions of how necessary misleading Héloïse for a time was. Equally, Héloïse is deeply hurt that her new companion was spending time with her under false pretences but understands her reasons and is prepared to forgive for the sake of a genuine relationship.
I sort-of understand why French audiences have reportedly found this tame. There’s not that much sex and nudity, but plenty of passion and looks that say everything. The sexiest scenes are the portrait sittings, how these two women play, work each other out and pick up on telling body language. My favourite moment from the whole film was the previously mirthless Héloïse suddenly grinning like a Cheshire Cat during a sitting and Marianne becoming personally thrilled but artistically frustrated at the incongruous change she’s caused in her subject. It is sexy, in a real and understated sort of way.
Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) become an endlessly caring family together. They go from a lady, her companion and her servant to a sensitive daughter and her two mums. But of course this domestic ideal cannot last. For all the freedom they have over the month where Héloïse’s mother is away, she will inevitably return expecting a portrait and her daughter’s ticket to marriage. It is still the Eighteenth Century and personal liberty, especially for women, is limited.
You’re left with some really stark images lingering on the mind. The way we’re introduced to Marianne and what’s important to her – she retrieves her precious canvases from the waves then sits naked with them in front of the fire to dry, posed like an artistic subject herself. The upsetting, but beautiful abortion scene – women looking after each other’s bodies, a young family surrounding the necessary procedure and providing comfort at a distressing time. The two lovers locking eyes over a campfire as the film’s title literalises itself.
The film is mostly without music apart from in a few key passages. A female choir chant evocatively around a campfire, Marianne does a slightly clumsy rendition of Vivaldi on the harpsichord, a professional concert of the same piece of music at the end gives them a new connection despite them sitting apart. A little music is so important in a film so often about looking. This is the second new Queer Cinema classic in recent years after CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to hold its final shot heartbreakingly on one of its leads going through emotional turmoil to music.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is sublime – a story of creativity and passion for the ages rendered tragic by the time it is set in. However these kinds of stories ultimately end, audiences need to experience them and their beauty in the moment now more than ever. SSP