Some films leave you with such a sense of devastation that it takes a while to put down some cohesive words. Celine Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire falls squarely into that category, and it’s all the fault of the ending, a real emotional gut punch that leaves you simultaneously breathless and speechless. It’s the moment when you realise quite how fully you’re invested in the story: until then, you’ve been seduced into believing you were simply a distant observer, drinking in the beautifully framed visuals, appreciating the literary references and thinking that it reminds you of Jane Campion’s The Piano. Not so.
In eighteenth century France, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is an artist, and the daughter of one. Commissioned to paint a young woman living on an island, she discovers this is no ordinary portrait. Heloise (Adele Haenel) is being married off to a nobleman in Milan but he needs to see what she looks like, hence the need for a painting. But she doesn’t want the marriage to go ahead – he was originally betrothed to her late sister – so she prevented a previous artist from doing his job by never letting him see her. This time round, her mother is determined not to be outwitted, so Marianne is instructed to pretend to be Heloise’s companion, spend time with her and then paint her from memory. A tall order for even the most gifted of artists. What nobody anticipates is the relationship that forms between the artist and subject and its intensity.
That idea of courtship through a painting is more than reminiscent of the sixteenth century – Henry VIII and Anne Of Cleves – yet 200 years later, in France the restrictions placed on women are just as severe. Rules and conventions prevent them doing things that we now take for granted, although Marianne is smart enough find a way round a lot of them: she enters her own paintings into exhibitions under her father’s name instead of her own and defies the rules about painting nude men by doing it in private. The subterfuge that inevitably goes with her relationship with Heloise comes quite naturally to her and she even goes so far to paint a very telling picture of the household’s maid, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), with whom she and Heloise form a surprising friendship, one that comes out of adversity.
Not that they live in isolation – there are villagers on the island – but there are few men to be seen, making this very female driven film. They live in a world where the scenes are perfectly framed, many of them made up simply of two people talking to each other, with little in the way of soundtrack or, sometimes, nothing but silence as a background. But beware. Those gorgeous visuals and the similarities drawn between this story and that of Orpheus make it like having a painting taking form in front of your very eyes. And it’s a perfectly executed one.
That similarity with The Piano isn’t because of its period setting, but its depiction of love from the female perspective. The title, and all the fire-related metaphors that go with it, means the film wears its intensity on its sleeve so that when that ending comes along, nothing can really prepare you for that final, lingering close up that leaves you so bereft. But that’s no criticism. Films with this level of emotional impact don’t come along very often. Savour its rarity.
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Drama, Romance, History | Cert: tbc | London Film Festival 8 and 9 October 2019 | UK, 20 February 2020 | Artificial Eye | Dir. Celine Sciamma | Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valerie Golino.