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Portrait of a Lady on Fire

April 21, 2020

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Actors: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami

Portrait of a Lady on Fire first look: Céline Sciamma conjures an ...

Synopsis: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is an artist commissioned by an Italian noblewoman to paint a flattering portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to send on to her prospective husband in Italy.

Review: The art of looking and the pain of thwarted love lies at the heart of Céline Sciamma’s latest work. It is an exceptionally poised and methodical act of filmmaking whereby Sciamma’s directorial sensitivity and craftmanship is mirrored in the narrative by Marianne’s own painting and her distanced ardour for Héloïse. The film is most effective when it takes this thesis of the female gaze and articulates it quite literally. Marianne’s first, rapturous reception of the mysterious cipher that is Héloïse is envisioned through Sciamma crafting a POV-sequence from Marianne’s perspective, chasing a tumultuous Héloïse down to the cliff’s edge, before capturing that first intoxicating look at Héloïse’s face after she has turned around in the throes of passion.

Just once or twice, the film’s build up of Marianne and Héloïse’s growing attraction and mutual smouldering is a touch unsubtle and parodic, in part because Sciamma’s quiet, plaintive style captures everything so keenly anyway. Also, the intertextuality of Marianne and Héloïse teaching the troubled young maid, Sophie, about the Orpheus and Eurydice legend (Orpheus is permitted to rescue his deceased wife from the underworld on the basis of not looking at her; he fails) is perhaps a convenient act of didacticism for the film’s otherwise subtle politicking on the themes of admiration and the transience of bliss.

It is a remarkably sincere film though, especially in its closing stages. Marianne’s premonitions of Héloïse decked out in marital white have a sense of accumulating dread, and the significance of the number 28 – revealed during the film’s late jump forward in time – is immeasurably poignant. Not only is it the subtlest of emblems for Héloïse’s enduring devotion to her, but it also outs patriarchy as the absent enemy in the narrative.

The carnal intensity of Marianne and Héloïse’s mirrors that of Adèle and Emma in the somewhat similar discourse on time and transcendent passion that was Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. Sciamma’s work also joins a select group of texts that brilliantly thematise the power of the image – either through painting, drawing or photography. I’m particularly thinking of Roland Barthes’ novel ‘Camera Lucida’ and José Luis Guerín’s hugely underrated film, In the City of Sylvia(April 2020)

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