If there is such a genre as ‘Mystical Femme,’ and there really should be, French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire belongs in it, placed at the top. Winner of the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the film features magnetic lead actresses whose chemistry with each other is off the charts.
Sciamma brings us romance, heartbreak, yearning, and acceptance from a decidedly and authentically female perspective. What a breath of fresh air to see women populate every moment of screen time, building story and character, showing their weaknesses, their internal struggles, and their desires unapologetically.
The story is of young portrait artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who is sent to a remote island in Brittany for a commission. She is tasked with painting, in secret, enigmatic Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is reluctantly betrothed to the man her sister killed herself rather than be married to. In spending time together and getting to know some of each other’s deepest fears, desires, and secrets, they fall deeply and passionately in love.
There are several scenes that will anchor themselves in the memories of cinephiles forever, including one in which a bonfire draws women to sing together with a passion that is mirrored in the two young lovers. It will take your breath away. The two leads are phenomenal. Two-time César-award winning Haenel is a worthy performer to bring real-life love partner and artistic collaborator Sciamma’s vision to life.
As usual, this movie and its writer/director will likely go unrecognized at awards time in the US, which is a travesty. I’d put Sciamma head to head against any directors who will be nominated for Oscars this year, and say the same for the film as a whole. There has never been a story of love and friendship quite like it. Even months after seeing it, it remains vitally alive in my mind, as it will for anyone who seeks out this film of spectacular beauty. One of the best films of the year in any language, Portrait of a Lady on Fire should be required viewing for film lovers determined to see the best of the year.
(5 out of 5 stars)