PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE – TIFF19 Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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The manner with which acclaimed French filmmaker Céline Sciamma tackles the notion of the female gaze in Portrait of a Lady on Fire transcends mere cleverness and artistry; she elevates it to something almost mystical.

With its recent Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on the back of dual wins at Cannes earlier this year where it took home both the Queer Palm and the Best Screenplay awards, the film seamlessly shifts production questions surrounding the gendered gaze into the world of the film itself. Here, acts of looking and desire form the film’s central core, both narratively and thematically.

Written and directed by Sciamma and shot by cinematographer Claire Mathon, Portrait of a Lady on Fire certainly ticks the necessary boxes to satisfy those for whom a woman’s perspective behind the camera is a marker of its difference from the dominant male point of view that has dominated cinema history. But what is going on here is far more complex and sophisticated than the gender of those in key production roles.

The film begins with the sound of pencil scraping on paper as a class of demure young ladies sketch a woman model who sits motionless before them. They watch her keenly, studying her lines and transcribing them dutifully with all the sombre earnestness a formal art class demands. Noting a painting sitting in the back of the classroom – the name from which the film takes its title – the story then cuts to a lengthy flashback as the model Marianne (Noémie Merlant) recounts her story.

A painter herself, Marianne is commissioned by a wealthy Italian woman in 18th century Brittany to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) as a gift for the latter’s arranged husband-to-be. Soon upon her arrival, Marianne discovers she is the second artist tasked with what is soon revealed to be an impressively difficult task. For Héloïse makes it virtually impossible for Marianne to see her face in anything but brief glimpses, shrouded with scarves or simply turned away from her as they speak, their relationship taking its first tentative steps before blossoming into a full-fledged love affair.

Discovering an attempted portrait by her predecessor that is notably missing any facial details whatsoever, Marianne realizes this is not a conundrum uniquely her own. Yet what makes this conscious occlusion on Héloïse’s part so fascinating is that we – the audience – cannot see her either. Like Marianne, we are told she is very beautiful, and like Marianne, we struggle to catch any glimpse we can. Our gaze as spectators struggles to behold a woman who refuses to be beheld.

When the opportunity for both Marianne and the audience to view Héloïse’s face in full arrives, its status as a commodity, as an enigma, as an abstracted kind of embodied treasure, slides away under the weight of something far more important that has risen to the surface: Héloïse herself.

Less than enthused about her impending arranged marriage, Héloïse’s relationship with Marianne stands in direct opposition to heteronormatic proprietary; it speaks of something far less stable and with less practical social utility. Instead, the relationship strays into the contrasting realm of passion and the senses, the latter a continuing stylistic fascination in the film as it captures the almost haptic textures that tickle our skin as much as our eyes, the camera gliding across sand, water, fabrics, and the supple, yielding flesh of the two lovers themselves.

A movie of almost indescribable beauty and intelligence, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a monument as much as a film; it towers over us less like fleeting, ephemeral images as it does a towering presence of pure, hand-carved marble. A film for the senses as much as the mind and heart, Portrait of a Lady on Fire continues to solidify Sciamma’s status as one of the most exciting and accomplished filmmakers working in Europe today.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for December 6, 2019

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).