REVIEW: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (London Film Festival 2019)
‘I’ve dreamt of that for years. Dying? Running.’
The heart-stopping meet cute shared by Noemie Merlant’s blossoming painter Marianne and Adele Haenel’s reluctant bride-to-be Heloise on the edge of the cliff, whose longing stares into the wide crystal blue waters epitomise the isolation felt and their burgeoning desire for something far greater in their lives. Ever developing as a formidable voice for female-led films with a strong sexual identity at their core. If Celine Sciamma’s efforts on Tomboy and Girlhood were merely lighting the match. ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ is a bewitching blaze, where you quickly lose yourself in its tidal wave of passion.
In Sciamma’s painting of France in 1760, she trusts in the audience to recognise the repression that has been at the forefront of many a period drama before, without heavily treading familiar ground. Instead, she opts to emphasise the hope that these women carry in their hearts, even when the despair of issues such as abortion and arranged marriages threaten to take over.
Posing herself as a walking companion to Heloise as she attempts to conceal her true objective enforced by her countess mother (Valeria Golino). Marianne is soon confronted by Heloise’s sheer reluctance to be the subject of a portrait, who is resisting multiple marriage proposals with all her might. The poise. The steely gaze. The delicacy in its strokes. No doubt the make-up of such craft, but it only translates into a growing physical attraction between the two.
Like any superior painting, Sciamma encourages the viewer to focus their attention on the tiny details that provoke the greatest of emotions amongst its gorgeous colour scheme. Her observations are just exquisite in their intimacy with sparse use of dialogue only accentuating the effect, with the initial mid-shot mystery between our lovers slowly subsiding, as the spine-tingling study of each other’s bodies leaves you completely transfixed.
Its characters so clearly stifled and yet there is a distinct lack of men to be found, which seems a deliberate choice to subvert the gaze and power over the women of that period. Sciamma’s direction certainly plays on this as the characters respectively break their shackles, opening up the frame in stunning fashion to mirror this newfound if only temporary freedom they’ve stumbled upon.
The chemistry shared between its two fantastic female leads is searing, with the film’s slow-burning pace proving ideal for the gradual progression of their relationship. The fiery open-hearted artistry of Noemie Merlant’s Marianne clashing with the initially icy and enclosed demeanour of Adele Haenel’s Heloise, with the two breaking down each other’s defences with sheer sensuality and tenderness. Where the sweet sounds dominate one sequence around a bonfire as they deeply gaze at each other creates almost a sense of euphoria, the masterful final shot is beautifully nuanced in the spilling of such emotions without verging into melodrama, which would almost be a disservice to what precedes it.
Another remarkable achievement for Sciamma. ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ is a lush lesbian love story that will take your breath away.
Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Written by: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino