Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sumptuously sensual lesbian love story set in 1770 that comments fiercely on the role of women in society – then and now.
Orpheus and Eurydiceby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
We first see Marianne (Noémie Merlant) leaping overboard from a bucking rowing boat into the rough sea to rescue her painting gear, so we know what kind of woman she is – fearless and unconventional. Like her father, she’s an artist, and she’s on her way to a remote chateau on the French Atlantic coast where her commission is to paint a portrait of the daughter of the wealthy house Héloise (Adèle Haenel) that can be sent to her prospective husband in Milan for an advantageous marriage arranged by her mother. The problem is that she doesn’t want her portrait painted so Marianne is there in the guise of a walking companion for the young woman.
Each night, Marianne secretly works on Héloise’s portrait from her memory of their walks during the day. As the two young women get to know each other, a subtle sensual attraction develops because of the honest and frank way they are able to talk to each other. When Héloise’s widowed mother departs for a few days, they are left alone together in the chateau like a honeymoon couple with just the young servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) to look after them. It becomes a household of women caring for each other in a way that ignores the differences in their status. Even at the village festival all three go to together one night, they only see women – a choir who sing an unearthly sounding song around the bonfire.
Marianne plays the harpsichord: Héloise loves music. She has never heard an orchestra and she longs to. Their relationship grows into love and passion, and truth about the secret portrait comes out. Héloise does not want the portrait because she does not want to get married. But between themselves, the two women reach a new agreement about it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has well written dialogue and is sumptuously filmed, each shot tells a story. Particularly striking are the scenes of flawless flesh tones that glow in candlelight, the echoing cold stones of the chateau with its warm kitchen, the crashing waves against the cliffs, the vibrant, singing colours of the silk dresses. Music, especially The Four Seasons by contemporary composer Vivaldi, is an important element. And when the women read and interpret the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice together it becomes an underlying metaphor for the relationship that quietly anchors the film.
It’s a very female film that, through the varying situations the three women find themselves in, comments strongly on the position of women in society then and, by implication, now. It’s so female that when finally a male messenger appears, it’s like a physical shock to see a man in a such a female space.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best Screenplay and Queer Palm, becoming the first film directed by a woman to win the award. It screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 28 February 2020 in the UK. It is available on Curzon Home Cinema now and on Mubi from 10 April 2020. To celebrate Sciamma’s accomplishments, MUBI will be showing more of her work including TOMBOY (2011) and GIRLHOOD (2014) soon.