Marianne (Noémie Merlant, "Return of the Hero") is a late eighteenth century Parisian anomaly, a woman who not only paints but teaches painting to other young women. When one of her students sets up an unusual and stunning portrait for display in the classroom, its presence disturbs Marianne who, after admitting authorship, remembers the events which led to the creation of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s ("Tomboy," "Girlhood") fourth feature explores the female gaze through the eyes of a woman whose career depends upon her ability to deconstruct the act of seeing. This luscious lesbian romance often recalls classic works of art, Claire Mathon’s ("Atlantics") cinematography rich in her use of color and composition while Sciamma’s Cannes winning screenplay gives her tale a modern edge with her theme of a woman’s right to choose.
The intimacy which forms between Marianne and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, "BPM," "The Trouble With You"), is complicated by the clandestine arrangement made between the painter and Héloïse’s mother, a countess (Valeria Golino, "Hot Shots!," "Respiro"), who hires Marianne with the understanding that she will be presented as a walking companion who will create her daughter’s portrait in secret. Marianne arrives at the isolated spot by rowboat, her unconventionality evinced when she jumps into the sea to retrieve her overboarded boxed canvases. Greeted by the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a fire is started for Marianne to dry off, which she does – nude, smoking her pipe and framed by her two blank canvases.
It is Sophie who informs her she is not the first painter hired for this task, a gift for a Milanese gentlemen who became Héloïse’s betrothed after his prior intended – her sister – committed suicide by throwing herself off one of the island’s cliffs. Marianne finds that first portrait, Héloïse posing in the brilliant emerald gown which Sophie has brought to her, her face obliterated. In her meeting with the countess, Marianne learns Héloïse’s Italian mother yearns to return to the place of her birth, Milan, a city of art and culture.
In a scene which evokes Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” Marianne first glimpses Héloïse as a dark cloaked figure at the bottom of a spiral staircase. She follows the young woman, editor Julien Lachery cross cutting between close-ups of Marianne’s face and the back of Héloïse’s head, her blonde hair in stark contrast with the brunette Marianne. Then Héloïse begins to run towards a cliff edge overlooking the sea. But Héloïse isn’t interested in repeating history as Marianne fears. It is the freeing act of running out in the open that Héloïse revels in.
Sciamma achieves that difficult task of making a painter’s craft come to life as Marianne observes aspects of her subject, narrating the technical details of say, how to correctly paint an ear, as she clearly falls for the woman. In keeping with the film’s theme of looking, the two discuss Orpheus and Eurydice. Stunned that Héloïse has only every heard the ‘bleak’ music of an organ and not a full orchestra, Marianne attempts to broaden her perspective by playing ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for her. But Héloïse fears Marianne will never understand her, as Marianne has the right to choose her path in life while Héloïse does not. Correspondingly, there are two paintings created, essentially a before and after, the first a stiff rendition which Marianne destroys after Héloïse, apprised of Marianne’s true role, questions. The countess agrees to allow Marianne a second portrait when her daughter assures her she will pose this time, time in which the countess will be away.
The love affair is consummated while a subplot involving Sophie’s unwanted pregnancy plays out, another issue of choice which Héloïse insists be documented (in one brilliant composition, a triptych is formed in front of a fireplace, Héloïse and Sophie performing the womanly duties of food preparation and embroidery on the sides as the ‘masculine’ Marianne drinks wine and smokes a pipe in the center). It will be echoed by its counterpart in the film’s two part coda in which Marianne recalls the two final times she saw her lover, the first in oils, the second in the flesh but Marianne unobserved in the film’s devastatingly emotional finale, a tour-de-force of acting by Haenel.
Robin gives "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" an A-.
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