Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Sciamma’s Powerful French Historical Drama about Art and Desire

Céline Sciamma’s French historical drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was one of the best films I saw in May at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest, where it deservedly won the Jury Prize for Best Screenplay.

Neon will distribute this terrific film on December 6, after playing at the Toronto Film Fest next month and in other venues in the fall.

Representing a European art film in the best sense of the term, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the kind of feature that’s rarely done anymore, literate without being literary, cerebral without being pretentious, subtle portrayal of repressed desire without succumbing to a conventional lesbian melodrama.

The tale is set in Brittany, France, circa 1760, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a novice artist, is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel), which will then be used as a tool to elicit marriage proposals.

Heloise’s mother, an Italian noblewoman (Valeria Golino), is concerned about her beautiful daughter Heloise, who has just come out of a restrictive convent and seems to be taking too long in recovering from the loss of her sister. The countess’ plan is for a secret painting to be down without her daughter’s knowledge, which will then be shown to a wealthy prospective husband in Milan.

There are obstacles, however.  Realizing that Héloïse has previously refused to sit for portraits (a former artist was let go), and that she does not want to be married, Marianne disguises herself as a lady’s maid in order to gain her subject’s trust.

The film gains cumulative power from sharply detailed scenes, in which the interaction between the two femmes take place. We get a glimpse of the walks taken by Marianne and Heloise, with the former examining her mistress’s face, committing it to memory in order to put it on paper in private later that night.

It’s not entirely a one-sided process. When Héloïse becomes aware of these intimate glances, she gets intrigued but also confused as they are open to various interpretations and thus could be easily be misguided, not to mention the potential harmful consequences.

Meanwhile, Marianne becomes preoccupied with her predecessor’s abandoned, unfinished work, leading to angry dissatisfaction with her own facile portrait, to the point of spoiling it to make it look worse, like a nightmare. Sciamma then shows how the second portrait differs from the pose that Héloïse grants Marianne as their relationship begins to warm up. On a broader level, we get a view of an artist’s changing relationship to her subject through their paintings.

The film offers plenty of narrative and visual pleasures. Portrait of a Girl on Fire is elegantly shot and framed.  Several scenes are static and the steady camera makes them look like paintings in their own right.

Throughout the intimate tale there are also elements of suspense, and even fear.  As most of the sequences are interior, set within an isolated house, often confined to a single room, Portrait of a Lady on Fire recalls other films, say Hitchcock’s Rebecca or Suspicion (both, not unintentionally, starring Joan Fontaine) revolving around an initially naive but inquisitive girl, who takes risks in delving into matters and persona that she is not allowed or expected to.

Tension is mounting and there is no way to tell at exactly what point the women will begin showing more overt expression of their genuine emotions. It’s to the credit of Sciamma as a scribe and helmer that her tale remains enigmatic and ambivalent almost to the end.

After demonstrating versatility in making contemporary films subscribing to social realism, such as Tomboy in 2011, and Girlhood in 2014, Sciamma shows in her new (and most fully realized film to date) how classical narrative style of yesteryear could still be molded and readjusted by audacious filmmakers in telling eccentric and extraordinary stories.

End Note:

Noémie Merlant as Marianne
Adèle Haenel as Héloïse
Luàna Bajrami as Sophie
Valeria Golino as The Countess