When it comes to films with a heavy focus on artists and art in general, it is difficult to not be a little apprehensive. It can often be a slippery slope leading into shallow self-indulgence and pretension that plagues many corners of independent cinema with the struggles of the so-called “tortured artist” (see the filmography of Noah Baumbach). Though recently, a handful of incredible films have proved stories about artists and the power, importance, and impact of art on a personal level can be deeply moving and poetic. Pedro Almodóvar’s thinly veiled biography, Pain and Glory did this beautifully, as did Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 3-hour epic Never Look Away.
Art imitates life, but can only ever be an imitation and nothing more; a facsimile of a time and place from the past that is immortalized. A treasured memory captured from long ago that, no matter how powerful and palpable it may be, can never be a complete representation of the events that transpired. This notion is evoked in Marianne (Noémie Merlant) when a student brings out one of her old paintings during an art class. As soon as the artwork enters her gaze, memories of love, longing, desire, freedom, regret, anguish, and heartbreak all come flooding back in an instant, as she recalls when she painted the Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Flashback to Marianne traveling to Brittany on the north coast of France in 1760. She’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), a young woman who has just left the convent and is to be married off to a suitor in Milan whom she has never met. Informed by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) that she will refuse to pose in protest of the marriage, Marianne acts as her walking companion to get close to her, study her features and paint her portrait in secret. As the subject and artist become closer and closer, attraction and intimacy grow stronger and stronger.
Winning both the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay prize at Cannes and the Audience Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Writer/Director Céline Sciamma has masterfully crafted a cinematic tour de force of the passion, euphoria, and heartache that comes with being in love. Portrait is a warm, tender look into first and last moments of true freedom for a young lady, shared with the one she loves most. With sparing dialogue and only 2 scenes that involve music (one strange acapella sequence with a group of women around a fire that comes out of nowhere and is a bit out of place and one outstanding use of an Antonio Vivaldi piece in the final scene), the emotions are scored and lyricized by Marianne and Héloïse’s expressions and looks at each other. At first, Marianne takes long glances at Héloïse as a reference for her portrait, but these long glances soon become intense gazes of deep affection.
These unbreakable stares of attraction are what bring out the strengths in both Merlant and Haenel’s excellent performances. Beyond their loving ocular embraces, there’s a strong, tangible emotional depth to their performances. Marianne is a skilled artist from far away that is preparing to take over her father’s business in a field where women are not taken seriously, while Héloïse has lived a life of seclusion in the convent (she hasn’t even heard an orchestra) and is getting her first taste of independence and autonomy before it is taken away from her again. In a pleasant surprise, their background and social-class bear little significance on the development of the relationship. Marianne and Héloïse’s love is one built on genuine admiration and attraction that is present with a great level of nuance and complexity, rather than a stale, cliché dichotomy of rich and poor that is often what separates lovers in tales of doomed romance.
As you might expect from a film about painting, Portrait is brimming with visual elegance and striking, picturesque photography. Every shot of the film, as if by design, looks like a painting you could put it in a gallery of its own. The cinematography evokes the artwork of the era, with excellent use of natural lighting by candlelight reminiscent of the works of Rembrandt, stunning wide compositions of cliffs and beaches and a supremely rich and diverse color palette that just leaps of the screen. Whether it’s the golden sand and turquoise water of the rocky beaches, the warm orange glow of the flames or the vibrant burgundy and green of Marianne and Héloïse’s soon-to-be-iconic dresses, the grading of the colors is perfectly tempered and captures the essence of artwork from the time, without the images appearing too artificial or oversaturated.
Much like the artwork the visual style is emulating, Sciamma brings a delicate, yet tactful hand to the direction. The only gaze present in the film is that of Marianne and Héloïse staring longingly into each other’s hearts and souls. When the film becomes more intimate, any sense of voyeurism or exploitation is completely absent. These sequences are deeply sensual and passionate, but executed with a great level of maturity and gracefulness. Sciamma directs these scenes with a sense of intense desire, but also restraint. However, she strikes this balance with aplomb and never reaches the point where it feels sanitized or deadeningly tasteful to make it palatable for a more general audience.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a love story of two parts; the experience of what it is like to fall in love, followed by a subsequent echo of how that love lingers and lives on inside us. There’s a scene where Marianne, Héloïse and their servant friend, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) are reading the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Initially baffled by Orpheus’ decision to turn around and damn his beloved to an eternity in the underworld, Marianne theorizes that Orpheus made the poet’s choice, to have her memory live on through his music, rather than the lover’s choice. The parallels between the Orpheus myth and Marianne’s journey are so perfectly realized and implemented, without being overly obvious and giving you a mild concussion from beating you over the head with the similarities. Marianne is haunted by a glowing phantasmagoric vision of Héloïse in a wedding dress (strongly resembling Eurydice) throughout the film, beginning to realize over time that when she thinks of Héloïse, she will not see her, but rather her visage from the portrait. It is this idea that makes the incorporation of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in the film’s final stages an emotionally devastating moment that was so exceptionally foreshadowed.
There is no other way to describe Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Just like the titular painting, it is a true work of art. Cèline Sciamma’s quiet, evocative tale of female love and friendship is one that is sure to deeply resonate with and touch the hearts of not only the LGBTQ community but anyone who has ever been in love. It’s a film about art that is refreshingly honest and is about so much more than an artist and her muse, but rather two collaborators who inspire each other. Brilliantly elegant in its simplicity with a beautifully soul-stirring romance at its center, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is utterly sublime filmmaking and one of the absolute best films of 2019. A fitting way to conclude what has been a truly amazing decade of foreign language cinema.
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