Such an exquisite, sexy, revolutionary film, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire must rank as my favourite of the new decade so far.
Ok, it’s only a few weeks in but I actually first caught this film at last year’s Cannes film festival, where it was many people’s favourite to pick up the Palme d’Or and become only the second film directed by a woman to do so, after Jane Campion’s The Piano.
In the end, it lost out to the all-conquering Parasite, so no shame there (it did win the Screenplay prize) but, despite the history-making success of the Korean film which I admire hugely, I actually love Portrait more.
It’s a film that seeps into your heart and soul until you become aware of the tear running down your cheek.
Set in a beautiful mansion on a Brittany island, it’s the story of Marianne (the luminous Noemie Merlant), a bohemian artist summoned from 1770s Paris to paint the portrait of a young heiress, Heloise (Adele Haenel) in order to get her married off to a distant Count.
As Heloise is a reluctant sitter, Marianne must act like her companion and study her closely during the day in order to carry out her painting in secret at night. It becomes a film about looks, about gazing and the relationship between artist and subject.
It also becomes a film about falling in love and director Sciamma is superb on the details of passion, the physicality of contact, creating a film that fuses erotic impulses with searing intellect, subtly subverting the history of female painting and the very traditions of the period movie.
Marianne and Heloise also assist a local servant girl with a secret pregnancy and a powerful feminist bond develops around the film crescendoing to an almost mystical climax, backed by an extraordinary choral piece made up of hand claps and ethereal voices (see Tune of the Week).
There’s something thrillingly haunting about the film, with echoes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca in the rocky seaside setting and the power of female passions, and the whole fire thing. Yet Sciamma, whose previous films (such as Girlhood and Tomboy) have been about female identity in the modern world, makes it more about a tussle between true love and the constraints on female expression throughout history.
I found the experience utterly bewitching and totally gorgeous, watching it as if in a trance and relishing every shot, every image, glance and gesture. The film’s a work of art in itself, about the many layers of technique, thought and story that lie behind the very best portraits, in art or in film.
Burning with desire and aflame with artistic and emotional tension, it’s what we used to call a masterpiece but should now probably term a mistresspiece. Anyway, it’s just a marvellous film.