Originally reviewed as part of our Cannes Film Festival coverage in May 2019.
Portraying someone in a work of art inevitably means gathering intimate details about their life. The way they blush when they’re angry, the way they bite their lip when they’re embarrassed, and the way they truly feel deep in their heart. Céline Sciamma’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers a female gaze which suggests these aesthetic details are enough to reveal the deepest secrets of someone’s life.
Sciamma’s gendered gaze feels like an honest solution to the way women once had to (and often still do) live their lives. Opportunities to openly discuss their true feelings were rare in the face of forced marriages or unwanted pregnancies so communication came through looks and silences.
This is even more true for queer women, as an inevitable consequence of taboo feelings. Sciamma uses this silence to brilliant effect, emphasising the secrecy of the relationship between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), heightening its eroticism with intimate whispers. Sciamma only uses a musical score at two moments and they’re lethal enough to remind you of the power of sound and images combined. It feels like nothing other than witchcraft when the needles drop and drive home emotions that were previously restrained.
Little backstory is given for any of the leads, which weakens the characterisation at times, but ultimately Sciamma’s ability to reveal telling details with her camera is enough.
Claire Mathon’s ravishing photography makes this one of the most beautiful films of the year, and Haenel and Merlant are astonishing in the lead roles, fencing with their feelings and revealing as little and as much as they dare.
CAST: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
DIRECTOR: Céline Sciamma
WRITER: Céline Sciamma
SYNOPSIS: On an isolated island in Bretagne at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.