Portrait of a Lady on Fire review: Céline Sciamma's period romance is a modern masterpiece of French cinema

Prahlad Srihari

May 24, 2019 08:42:04 IST


Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) begins with a pretty Jane Eyre-ish setting. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a well-read and self-standing (but not well-born) woman arrives in a Thornfield Hall-like mansion. Only it is the late 18th century and Marianne is a painter, not a teacher.

 Portrait of a Lady on Fire review: Céline Sciammas period romance is a modern masterpiece of French cinema

Adèle Haene and Noémie Merlant in Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Festival de Cannes

She has been commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a young woman fresh out of convent who is reluctant to get married to the rich Milanese man her mother has chosen for her. So, she resists her destiny by refusing to pose. Yes, the premise got a little Jane Austen-esque there but this is not moral education for the bourgeoisie masquerading as entertainment.

After a trilogy of coming-of-age movies (Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood), Sciamma has shifted her focus from adolescents to young women in her new film. Marianne pretends to be Heloise's companion to study and paint her in secret. The first portrait is formal and soulless. But an intimacy collects through body language as the two women steal glances and make conversation. With each successive portrait, Marianne is not only able to better capture the essence, emotion and intensity of her subject; she also discovers herself as if she were also painting a self-portrait.

Sciamma showcases the seductive power of art as the line between the artist and the muse becomes blurred. As they share with each other their misery, desire, flashes of joy and rushes of despair, their friendship blossoms into a tender, positively intoxicating romance. Sciamma takes us deep inside the exhilarating experience of feeling connected to someone — all seen and rendered through a woman’s gaze.

Marianne falls in love with Heloise with each portrait she paints of her. Festival de Cannes

Marianne falls in love with Heloise with each portrait she paints of her. Festival de Cannes

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an incandescent and utterly beguiling love story. What makes Sciamma's film really refreshing is that it does not treat its central romance as anything but entirely normal. Despite the tenor of the period in which it is set, there is a sensual same-sex frankness which is très French and titillating in all the right ways.

Sciamma employs an incredibly evocative visual style as her camera lingers on the characters' faces trying to capture every little detail — with close-up shots honing in on their suggestiveness. Often, she prefers using long, meditative shots over dialogue to accentuate the sensuality and emotional depth of the scenes. There are plenty of lessons in there for Abdellatif Kechiche if he is planning to make Blue Is the Warmest Colour: Part 2.

Through composition, lighting and the use of some fantasical elements, the film often makes you feel like you have been immersed into a series of tableaux. When Marianne and Heloise go out one evening, they see a group of women singing while gathered around a campfire. As Marianne watches them, she is sent into a trance and comes out of it only when she sees Heloise appear out of the pitch blackness of night. As they stare silently into each other's eyes, they fall in love at that exact moment. It is during this scene that Heloise's dress catches fire, inspiring the title of the film.

Marianne also has frequent visions of a Galadriel-like glowing Heloise in her white wedding dress, materialising from the dark corridors and vanishing in an instant. Sciamma uses such symbolic imagery to project her character's internal conflicts externally. Even a scene of abortion is turned into a series of some of the most poignant, exquisite frames ever seen on cinema.

A lot of the frames in Portrait of a Lady on Fire look like paintings. Festival de Cannes

A lot of the frames in Portrait of a Lady on Fire look like paintings. Festival de Cannes

Silences are punctuated with brief exchanges as Sciamma uses dialogue sparingly. But the lines possess the depth, passion and brevity of a Shakespearean sonnet. In a telling scene, Marianne, Heloise and her housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) discuss the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. They all have differing views on why Orpheus chooses to ignore Hades' instructions and turns around to look at Eurydice, when he very well knew it would cast her back into the underworld forever. Marianne suggests he took a poet's decision rather than a lover's. He would rather happily enjoy a fleeting moment of seeing his lover and treasuring that memory, than the possibility of living with her forever. This reflects Marianne's own romance with Heloise as the memory of their relationship is more precious than the likelihood of them pursuing a great, enduring lesbian romance in 18th century.

The film does not have a musical score either as Sciamma uses diegetic sounds like fires crackling and winds blowing to spotlight the sexual tension between Marianne and Heloise. They also nicely enhance the emotional honesty of the story.

It is hard to pull your eyes away from Haenel and Merlant throughout the film. Their performances communicate a palpable tingling sense of oneness and connection you feel when deeply in love. Haenel has evolved into one of the most talented French actresses since she appeared in Sciamma's Water Lilies in 2006. Merlant lends a bourgeois elegance to her Pygmalion-esque character and matches her more established co-star's enigmatic performance.

Actresses Luana Bajrami, from left, Noemie Merlant, director Celine Sciamma, actresses Adele Haenel and Valeria Golino pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Monday, May 20, 2019. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

(From L-R) Luana Bajrami, Noemie Merlant, director Celine Sciamma, Adele Haenel and Valeria Golino at the photo call for Portrait of a Lady on Fire at 2019 Cannes. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been crafted with a painter's eye, a poet's tongue and a musician’s control over emotion. It is a modern masterpiece of French cinema — and (dare I say) worthy of the Palme d'Or.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

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Updated Date: Oct 09, 2019 16:19:41 IST