A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, as the title evokes, an artistically rich and provocative film out of Cannes, one where the passions and obsessions of two women ignite in ways rarely seen on screen. A tour-de-force film by director Céline Sciamma, the film is both evocative and enervating, casting a spell on the audience that feels as dreamlike as the Britany seaside location.
This is the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist teaching a group of young women in an art class. One of her students pulls out a painting from the collection, a somber piece of dark portent with a figure with flamed licking the hem of her dress, her dead body turned backwards. It’s an image of strong portent, and Marianne seems flustered that it has reemerged.
The film then flashes back to Marianne on a boat, churning waters rocking her transport. When a large box goes overboard she jumps to retrieve, indicating how precious the cargo is. We soon learn that within are canvases and art supplies, for she has been tasked by an Italian countess (Valeria Golino) to be the companion to her Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a beautiful daughter recently returned from a convent who’s set to be married to a man she’s never met that was meant to be the husband of her recently departed sister. The goal is for Marianne to be a friend to while surreptitiously painting a portrait that will be used to woo the future spouse, for Héloïse has thusfar refused to sit for a portrait despite her mother’s pleadings.
What begins as a kind of subterfuge soon develops into genuine closeness, as both Marianne and Héloïse find within each other things they’ve long searched for. Sciamma’s gift is to make the audience feel a part of this growing intimacy, her shot selection evocative of the gaze the artist has for her subject, and, in turn, the reticent of subject to be captured. It’s this dance of glances that grants the film much of its power, providing both erotic thrills and a kind of mysterious dread, a tonal balance that’s difficult to describe but nonetheless thrilling.
There’s both a classical beauty and a sense of abandon that weaves throughout, creating moments that feel, paradoxically, highly composed and effortlessly naturalistic. The chemistry between the leads is palpable, and even when the film emerges as a love story the affections and gentle touches feel as tentative and sensitive as can be desired. Every beat is earned, every glance deliberate, every choice one that feels pertinent to the characters and the choices they’d make. It’s entirely believable, and yet a kind of rich fantasy, the dreams of someone looking back on their life and wondering whether it truly was as spending and aching as it appears to be on the retelling.
The film isn’t afraid to draw in gothic elements as well – Flashes of Héloïse in her wedding dress provide a ghostly specter for Marianne, evocative of the death of a part of the young woman’s heart for the conformity and obligations of wifehood. The eventual consummation of these affections is arguably overmuch, even if one particular shot involving an armpit is both surprising and highly charged. It’s almost as if actually seeing the details makes the gauzy lines disappear for a moment, and while the tenderness is clear, there’s still something to be said for the anticipation over the execution.
Still, this is a minor quibble, and throughout, there’s so much at play in this exquisitely realized work that one is truly picking at nits to find fault. With a quiet grace, Schiamma’s film manages to draw us in, staring as longingly at the screen as Marianne does at her subject. A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a richly textured, highly evocative story of love, lust and longing, and thanks to exceptional direction and remarkable, talented actors it’s a work to be cherished.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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