Coming off a screening at Cannes where the film was raved about and won two awards – Best Screenplay and Queer Palm – this would be seen as a good thing by most, but director/screenwriter Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy) said she is feeling pressure. The pressure of a film which comes to people with rave reviews. With praise comes elevated expectations and Sciamma is hoping her film continues to fulfill them.
After seeing the film at its second screening at TIFF and hearing the heavy applause, with a good portion of the crowd standing up while applauding, I think the French director has nothing to worry about. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exquisite film. A period piece which was conceived of and directed by a woman, features a cast which is almost exclusively female and gives those who watch it a window into the heart and mind of women.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant – Le Ciel Attendra, Les Drapeaux de Papier) is a young female painter who has been hired to paint a portrait of a bride to be after a male painter has failed. He failed because he could not get the subject to sit for him. She would not sit for him because she is less than thrilled about her upcoming nuptials.
Héloïse (Adèle Haenel – La Fille Inconnue, Deerskin) has been removed from the convent where she has spent most of her life in order to step in for her deceased sister. Her sister, who might have committed suicide, was supposed to marry a man from Milan and now Héloïse must take that walk down the aisle in her stead.
In order to be able to paint Héloïse, Marianne has been presented as her walking companion. The two begin to spend time together. Marianne begins to paint the portrait. Love and desire, though forbidden and impossible, soon follows.
A film which is in essence a painting. It is about a painting and almost every frame of it looks like a painting. Sciamma has set it up so that it often looks like a portrait with you looking at the two leads face on. They are filmed often from shoulders up looking directly at the camera. Cinematographer Claire Mathon has done a wonderful job bringing light into the film. She even manages to make a scene with spit hanging from one lover’s lips onto the other’s seem beautiful the way she captures it. It also is like a painting in that at its heart it is about being seen. Having your true self seen by another. A very romantic ideal.
Romance is everywhere in this 18th century period film. Not the artificial type we have been peddled by Hollywood. No, somehow, even though it is a film, it seems real. That is how affected you will be watching it. You will feel what they do. Want what they want. Get all caught up in it. That is how pure and real their feelings feel. Often powerful. But oh so beautiful.
The dialogue, though there are long stretches without any, is realistic, not stilted in anyway. There are some rather poetic and witty moments to boot. Much of the acting by the two leads is done with their eyes. How they look at each other. Merlant and Haenel are wonderful. Totally make you want to see more of their films. Their chemistry is sparkling. No trickery or falseness between the two.
Total feminist cinema by director Sciamma. The way she conveys what it is to be a woman (of any period she tackles) is amazing. How she constructs her love story between two women of different classes. Shows how being female at this time really constrained women. They could not fall in love with another woman. Could not choose who they married. Even female painters, the few there were, could not paint male nudes. These are two women trying to find their way within the patriarchy. A beautiful, in many ways, addition to the LGBTQ film ranks.