Céline Sciamma’s queer period romance is an intimate visual feast, filled with uncanny empathy and admirable aesthetics.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which just won the Queer Palm at Cannes), two women gaze at a painting of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman ready to be married. She stands alongside the artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and by this point, they’ve gotten under each other’s skin in a passionate relationship that started off as friendly. If anything, their courtship came from embracing each other’s femininity, from being allowed to actually gaze at one another. There isn’t a ton to look at on this remote Bretagne island, but given that Marianne has been commissioned to paint Héloïse’s wedding portrait, she finally found her subject.
Héloïse’s fiancé, as it happens, is never seen in Céline Sciamma’s film. Almost no men are. Occasionally a few friends will appear, but otherwise, this is a locale divorced from any populous society but still entangled in its constructs. Its melancholia is calming at first: the sumptuous, omnipresent sounds of the surrounding ocean and the crackling of each room’s fireplace. It’s more than a little sensual too, and that’s before any real attraction develops.
This is a world that dares to fold in on itself in isolation and intimacy. Sciamma enters her story through a wraparound structure that can feel a bit detached from the rest of the film, but it all points to the center: to a blossoming romance, to a subjective point of view, to one night around a bonfire. Portrait of a Lady on Fire works most sublimely in its aesthetic construction, though, as its fire-and-water motif engulfs viewers while evading cheap drama or fatalism.
Claire Mathon—who also shot fellow Cannes competitor Atlantics—places a layer of parchment over the viewer. It would be preferable if she and Sciamma captured this sense of time on film instead of digitally, but they still do graceful work. After all, this is framed like a ghost story. Of course, that isn’t to say that it is one, but it might as well be. Memories tell all here.
It’s a film that tells its story as one would recount it—how they would recount how it felt in the moment. The tension is hard to pin down but very much there. As the ASMR-inducing sound design crescendos into the clinking of silverware later on, Marianne and Héloïse’s sensuality becomes slightly more threatening, if only for its impermanence.
The pair’s relationship, after all, is commissioned. Therein lies the sadness on display here. Basic manners give way to empathy, empathy gives way to love, love gives with to intimacy. This is also a relationship to be tracked, and as Héloïse fills the canvas, their romance solidifies itself as something to be gazed upon and hung on a wall. At least the lasting result is a result of one of the women involved.
It’s a film that tells its story as one would recount it—how they would recount how it felt in the moment.
Throughout Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a tender, more tempered approach to the human body. It’s not just Sciamma’s eye that rides this line; it’s Marianne’s as well, as viewers are with her virtually the entire time. That includes the quieter, more circuitous moments too. The “where is this going?” aspect of any rendezvous; the point at which waiting for something to end is the same as wishing it wouldn’t. So where exactly does the tale of Marianne and Héloïse end?
That’s but one of the questions at hand. The main one is voiced by Héloïse herself as she and Marianne look at the portrait, almost near completion. They add a bit more finishing touches and look at it from a few different angles. The former looks at another woman’s vision of herself. The latter looks back at her own infatuation. “How do we know it’s finished?” Héloïse asks with an uncanny stillness in her eyes. Marianne raises her chin, and then it hits them both.
“At one point, we stop.”