PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (France 2019) ****
Directed by Céline Sciamma
PORTRAIT OF A LADY begins with a segment that sets the tone and pace for the entire movie. Amidst the opening credits are the chalk sketching of a painter. When the camera pulls back, a class of painters is in progress. One student asks the instructor, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) about a painting. The painting, the class is told is called “Le Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu” and the film then goes into the past as the story is told of how this painting came about.
The film is set in France in the late 18th century, the film telling the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and the painter commissioned to paint her portrait.
The story begins with Marianne arriving by boat on an isolated island in Bretagne (Brittany). She had been commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adele Haenel), who is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. Marianne is informed that Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits as she does not want to be married. Marianne acts as Héloïse's hired companion to be able to paint her in secret, and accompanies her on daily walks by Bretagne’s gorgeous cliffs to memorize Héloïse's features. Marianne finishes the portrait, but finds herself unable to betray Héloïse's trust and reveals her true reason for arriving. The two begin a relationship.
The film contains a lot of silent drama, which would be more appreciated when discovering it on ones own. One is the scene where Héloïse runs towards a cliff, when Marianne thinks what could have been a suicide. Another has Marianne dive into the sea to retrieve her boxed canvas.
There is some but little humour. Every character is quite serious. At one point, Marianne is asked by the maid “Have you started painting her yet?”, to which she answers, “No. I have not even seen her smile?’ “Have you tried to be funny?” the maid answers, in the film’s first and funniest moment.
The film is a slow watch. But this does not mean it is any less riveting. There is a beautifully crafted segment of a story involving Euridice where it is revealed that a choice made regarding death is the choice of the poet and not of the lover. And an even more beautiful segment by a fire where women sing in a cappella.
The same sex scenes are sufficient erotic without going into the extreme as in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR. The lovers’ first kiss occurs 90 minutes into the film.
The film has so far, garnished praise from critics wherever it was shown. The film won the Queer Palm at Cannes, becoming the first film directed by a woman to win the award.. The director Sciamma also won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes. The film is to be appreciated akin to a painting - slow, pensive with it growing on multiple viewings.