In what might possibly be one of the most beautiful films of 2019, winning Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes festival and receiving the MIFF 2019 Audience Award, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a raw voyeuristic adventure into the romance between a painter and her subject – perfectly calibrated with a building tension that crests to a payoff that is bittersweet, fully satisfying, and heart wrenchingly beautiful.
On the waters off the coast of Brittany, France in the 18th-century, a cramped row boat makes its way to shore with Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young painter who has been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of bitter and reluctant bride-to-be Heloise (Adele Haenel), aboard. Shortly after arriving on the almost desolate island, Marianne is issued with a challenge from Heloise’s mother – Heloise refuses to sit for her portrait so Marianne must accompany her for walks and paint her portrait in secret. For days Marianne follows Heloise around the beach and cliffside, discussing the events that led to her betrothal to a nobleman in Milan and the suffocation Heloise feels on the island, all the while intently observing her subject’s appearance and sneaking away to sketch.
It’s in these moments that Sciamma utilises incredibly intimate camera work, showing Heloise in a sequence of close-up shots that invite us to notice every aspect of her figure and appearance the way that Marianne does; closely, secretly, and with purpose. Important to note is the destruction of class conventions between the pair – in a time where social standing dictates everything a person is capable of achieving, the pure isolation that the clifftop castle imposes on Marianne and Heloise is absolutely crucial to their story, and results in the two standing on equal footing throughout much of the film. It is this elimination of the era’s social hierarchies that allows them to develop and explore a relationship that would otherwise be considered clandestine.
Bolstered by a noticeable absence of a musical score, every look between Marianne and Heloise feels hyper charged, brimming with the energy of two women studying one another. A rather brave move on the part of Sciamma, the story is instead accented by subtle and artistic sound design; the whisper of the sea against the cliffs and sand, the crackling fires that burn throughout the castle, the scratch of Marianne’s charcoal as she draws, all punctuating the silence and adding weight to Sciamma’s narrative.
There are many things that Sciamma gets right through Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but most important is the relationship between these two women. At no point during the film does the relationship between Marianne and Heloise feel forced, faked, or worse – like tokenism. Trying to make LGBT+ relationships feel revolutionary or rare is where many filmmakers fail with their representation, often resulting in the relationships feeling unrealistic and borderline pornographic. Sciamma’s film is romantic, sensual, but not graphic in a way that feels distasteful and it is because of this, that Portrait of a Lady on Fire stands out as a masterpiece of queer cinema.
Equally important is the fact that this film is, in its own way, a cinematic novelty thanks to its female-driven cast and production; not only was it written and directed by Sciamma, but the crew also boasted female producers and a female cinematographer. Perhaps it was because of this, that there is less focus on objective beauty – during a scene in which Marianne and Heloise experiment with herbal narcotics, we are given a clear shot of Heloise’s unshaved underarm. Not only is it accurate for the period in which the film is set, but it feels like a big middle finger to the male directors who have historically reduced their female actors to the sum of their parts.
An incredibly beautiful and technically impressive film in spite of its constrained environment, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is easily a career defining moment for all involved in its production, more than worthy of its awards and likely to lead the way towards a future of equally inclusive and representative mainstream cinema.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in Australian cinemas Boxing Day.