French auteur Celine Sciamma is one of the most breathtaking and consistent directors working in French cinema today. She will always be championed for her authentic and honest portrayals of female characters. From her breakthrough film, the naturalistic and tender “Tomboy” (2012), to her follow-up feature “Girlhood” (2014), her artistry has set a high standard for modern female film directors working today. Now with her latest film, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, she has created her most formal and meticulously crafted film to date, and it will certainly establish her for more notoriety in years to come.
A period piece based on an original screenplay that was also penned by Sciamma is a rarity these days, considering most period pieces are often based on established and renowned novels. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an exquisite and ravishing romance that still has the scope of a Jane Eyre or Edith Wharton adaptation. The film holds rich and intoxicating visual splendor that resembles the beauty you would find in an oil painting rather than the typical aesthetics you would find in a typical film. If anything, the film’s cinematography by Claire Mathon aesthetically resembles Julian Schnabel’s 2018 masterpiece “At Eternity’s Gate”, the tragic Vincent van Gogh character study that also captured the look of an oil painting. The film is also elevated by rich subtext and a slow-burn narrative screenplay that unfolds with rich intimacy and sensual beauty. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” becomes a triumphant effort that studies rich themes about artistry, muses, passion, and of course repressed desires.
The film’s setting is a remote French island in Brittany circa 1770, wherein beautiful motifs of beach waves and bursting fires capture the themes of unspoken desire. A painter named Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is brought to the island after she is hired by a wealthy countess (Valeria Golina) to paint a portrait for her daughter’s wealthy fiancé who she is to marry in Milan. After she arrives to the island to meet her subject Heloise (Adele Hanel), Marianne ends up struggling to deliver a satisfying portrait due to the fact that she isn’t supposed to let Heloise know that she is doing a portrait of her. Instead, Marianne is supposed to befriend Heloise and study her hard enough to complete her own portrait during her down time.
Both women end up feeling a strong attraction to and connection with one another, eventually resulting in a passionate and obsessive love affair. The love is captured with a strong female gaze that is uncommon in most cinema today. The love between Heloise and Marianne is built on artistic struggle and sexual discovery. Sciamma also finds great honesty in the smallest details in her female gaze–in a beautiful scene, Marianne points out to Heloise the intimate details about her body language. Marianne observes that Heloise blushes in a certain way and even bites her lip when she feels embarrassed. These are all detailed inclinations, demonstrating how Sciamma holds great delicacy with the female psyche and character traits.
Sciamma also examines how women throughout history have yearned for their own freedom and independence. The countess puts a mandate that Marianne must complete the portrait once she arrives. Their servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami) becomes a more substantial character in the story as their bond moves the narrative and subtext forward in its themes on the constraints of class. All the women do an equal amount of chores and exchange duties as they cook and clean, like any trio of roommates would. Sciamma beautifully explores these women coming together as they get a small dose of independence without any form of systematic patriarchy. Despite the third act of the film taking an unnecessary ideological turn and a subplot involving an unwanted pregnancy with Sophie, there is still a great minimalist beauty to be found here.
All around, this is an incredibly ravishing movie. Sciamma’s visual style is filled with so much passion and artistry as her narrative touches on many layers and themes. What could have just been a film that only studies artistic voyeurism instead ends up becoming a monumental exploration on the power of observance. Sciamma’s vision is fully realized here, and her technical brilliance is on full display, displaying a more elegant style than the stripped-down realism style that was found in her earlier work. The film abounds with meticulous framing, vibrant colors, fabrics, paintings, and luminous decor. All of this amounts not only to visual splendor, but to psychological detail for the characters as well. This film is a great indication in just how effective Sciamma is in expressing suppressed personalities living in a repressed system, seldom chronicled with such vivid style and detail that is scarce in cinema today.