God, I love Céline Sciamma. The woman is a phenomenon. Tomboy dealt with the burgeoning sexuality of a ten-year-old who experiments with the notion of her gender. Girlhood (2014) screened in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section and focused on race, gender and class. In between those films and her latest feature, she wrote the screenplay for the utterly lovely animation My Life as a Zucchini. And now here she is in competition with the practically perfect Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Sciamma has moved far from the contemporary settings of her previous films, heading back in time to France in 1770. A female artist has been commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman at her remote coastal home. Arriving by boat, the artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) loses her canvases in the sea. As the uncooperative, ineffectual men look on, she leaps into the water to retrieve her precious cargo. Once on dry land, this is the last we are going to see of any men for pretty much the duration of the film – and good riddance.
Marianne has been summoned by the Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter for the girl’s prospective husband. A sort of eighteenth-century Tinder, if you will. The girl, Héloise (Adèle Haenel), is reluctant to be painted and sold off to her unknown buyer. Thus Marianne feigns being a paid companion. And so begins the relationship between the two young women.
Sciamma shows how throughout history women have – often surreptitiously – sought an independent life for themselves and taken action to change their destiny, most notably through the thoroughly modern Marianne. When the Comtesse leaves, the servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami) comes into focus as the three young women take over the house and live freely together. Gone are the constraints of class, as all three take turns to cook and clean, like any trio of housemates. Yet Sciamma details how women come together in support of each other and when we see an abortion performed, it is one of the loveliest, most moving moments of the film.
Sciamma keeps things very minimalist. Events unfold in a few places – a kitchen, a beach, a handful of rooms – with few props cluttering the space. The four women are given specific colours: the two aristocrats in dark blue, Marianne in brick red and the country servant in yellow with a scattering of flowers, elements which are returned to in her embroidery. Those three primary colours are worn throughout, except for an emerald-green dress, which is worn by all three young women and which connects them and their entwined stories.
Haenel worked with Sciamma in 2007 in Water Lilies, for which she earned a César as best newcomer. Here she excels as the initially inscrutable Héloise, whose emotions are communicated in the most subtle expressions. Yet Merlant is her perfect match and they are together in virtually every scene, scrutinizing one another while being closely scrutinized by the camera’s penetrating gaze. I could have watched them for hours.
There are elements of a haunted house theme, as Marianne imagines Héloise as an apparition in white – is she a bride or a ghost? And that title refers to a real fire, but to what extent those flames will engulf the woman depicted? And what about the flames of passion, which flicker like the lovers’ glances before becoming more consuming? Will they be doused or consume the women eternally?
There is a beautiful scene (actually they are all beautiful) in which Héloise recounts the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice and the three women give their impressions of that most romantic and tragic tale. Does Orpheus choose to turn back; does Eurydice choose her fate? Interestingly, it is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that Sciamma uses rather than Gluck’s opera, written in 1774. After you see this film, whenever you are put on hold and Vivaldi’s music plays, prepare to shed some tears.