Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest from Girlhood writer/director Celine Sciamma, is a superbly constructed, painterly, emotionally gripping psychological drama/romance. With a female director, all-female cast, and barely a glimpse of a man for the duration, this has caught the attention of academics, critics, and feminists as a significant cinematic exploration of “female gaze” instead of “male gaze”, in a variety of multi-layered and intriguing respects (not just the lesbian love story aspect).
Suffice to say, I won’t bore you with lengthy scholarly discourse in this review. Instead I’ll simply say that the film is a must for cineastes. Set in 18th Century France, the plot concerns professional painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant), who has been hired to paint Heloise (Adele Haenel), ahead of her arranged marriage to a Milanese suitor she hasn’t met (the suitor won’t agree to marry unless he sees her painting first). Heloise isn’t happy about the match, and refused to pose for the previous hired painter. To that end, Heloise’s mother has arranged a deception, whereby Marianne will pose as a lady’s companion to accompany Heloise on her brooding walks along the rugged coastline, in order to study her and paint her portrait in secret. As she studies her subject, the pair slowly fall into a forbidden love affair.
This is a beautifully photographed film, courtesy of cinematographer Claire Mathon. The subtle performances simmer with erotic tension, and the dialogue is a dripping honeycomb of subtext. Sciamma conjures an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere which has a touch of the gothic, and even nods to Hitchcock (specifically Rebecca and Vertigo). There are also potent allusions to Greek mythology, specifically the tale of Orpheus/Eurydice in the underworld.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire plays with themes of watching and being watched, cleverly flipping the metaphorical mirror backwards and forwards between characters in fascinating ways. As a doomed romance, it is also very effective, though in fairness likely to get up the nose of some of my fellow Christians for obvious reasons (as will an abortion sequence, involving a maid). So certainly not a film for everyone. But in the end, every aspect of the production – performances, screenplay, cinematography, and direction – coalesce to form a superb whole, making this highly recommended to anyone with serious interest in cinema.
One more small point: Off the top of my head, I can’t recall another film that featured women smoking pipes! Why don’t we see that more often?
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content Warnings: Sexual content, nudity.