A highly flammable love affair smoulders in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter with a spark in her eye. Although she is always aware of convention and tradition, she also knows how to bend the rules to further her own pursuit of art. She smokes a nifty little pipe and is fearless.
Her new job is to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young noblewoman who has been removed from a convent in order to marry a Milanese nobleman. The prospective groom requires the portrait as an enticement – the two having never met – but Héloïse is dead against the match and still grieves for her sister who was also to marry the nobleman before her untimely death. She knows nothing about the painting and so Marianne is presented as a lady companion and must try to catch glimpses of her subject, essentially anatomizing her in order to go back to her room and surreptitiously sketch and paint away. An ear here. A nose there. The back of the neck.
With her previous films Tomboy and Girlhood, Sciamma mainly worked in social realism, creating incisive contemporary portraits of life. Her new film represents a refreshing change in direction. Fittingly for a film about a painter, the compositions are glorious: the use of a rich and diverse colour palette; the perfectly framed mise en scene and the feel for texture and material as well as the softness of skin and the body. William Hazlitt once wrote that painting is the science of looking and here we look with Marianne’s eyes as she is slowly drawn to her subject and her subject to her.
This is further helped by the absence of her mother, played by Valeria Golino. She leaves after Marianne destroys her first attempt at a portrait. In this almost entirely female movie, the young women are left with only the servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) to attend them. Rather than a lurking spy, Sophie herself has a secret which sees the three women conspire together and draw ever closer. This female space allows them a rare moment of equality and freedom – as seen in a card game in which Héloïse loses her poise and just becomes a woman having fun.
The idyl is – given the historical context – precariously temporary, but Sciamma, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps things real and even as they lose their hearts, neither woman loses her head. In fact, music – Vivaldi in particular – art and poetry are all called upon for allusions, especially the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. These are women don’t just love each other, the love the idea of living a full life, or at least a fuller one. They are reclaiming mythology and art for themselves as well as reclaiming the gaze. Marianne not only breaks the rules by painting male models but in painting the scene of an abortion Sciamma presents her as a fellow social realist.
The acting honours are hard to separate, with both Haenel and Merlant sensationally good. Merlant’s piercing gaze, her strength and her wit are all on display, but perhaps it is Haenel, whose initial emotional numbness melts into passion who will gain the most plaudits. She has built a reputation over the past few years – this reviewer first discovered her in Les Combattants in 2014 – and she is also in Deerskin which is showing here in the Director’s Fortnight. But this has to be her most impressive role to date.
Not since Jane Campion’s The Piano has a costume drama presented such a gorgeous view of love from a woman’s point of view, as in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And that might bode well for the Sciamma’s chances in competition at Cannes. After all, The Piano won here, with Campion (shamefully) the only female director to have claimed the big prize. Let’s hope that’s about to change.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty