The instantly ravishing Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Céline Sciamma’s grandest film to date, even if its story feels somewhat familiar. Winner of the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is the latest in the French filmmaker’s oeuvre to observe young women at their most curious and vulnerable, focusing on the friendship between a renowned portrait artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, rebellious bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which turns complicated when their kinship blossoms into romantic attraction. In this depiction of 17th century France, many of the shots look as if they could have been painted onto the screen: their saturated hues are keeping with the film’s neo-classical setting, and are complemented beautifully by Claire Mathon’s sumptuous cinematography.
One of the most enlightening elements of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the way it explores the different functions of art: a portrait as a simple document of the features of a potential wife, as a way of understanding both the artist and their subject, or even as a means of overcoming trauma. There’s also a powerful feminist message in the unorthodox familial unit Marianne and Héloïse form with their young maid Sophie (a winning Luàna Bajrami), which makes for an authentic image of female interdependence. Some of the film’s more flagrant attempts to engineer conflict detract from what is largely a nuanced affair, and one wishes that a final close-up shot of Haenel had ended thirty seconds earlier so as not to betray too much of Héloïse’s fate. Still, Portrait of a Lady on Fire remains a worthy addition to Sciamma’s ever-consistent body of work, reinforcing her importance as an author of female experiences.
Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.