If you enjoy femme-centric cinema with a strong female gaze, go see filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s sublime period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, set on an isolated island in 1760’s Brittany. Sciamma examines the relationship between a reluctant bride-to-be (Heloise/Adele Haenel) and the artist (Marianne/Noemie Merlant) secretly commissioned by her mother (La Comtesse/Valeria Golino) to paint her wedding portrait. While posing as a hired companion, Marianne surreptitiously observes every detail of her subject on their daily walks then paints Heloise from memory in the evenings.
After a genuine friendship develops between the two women, it evolves into something more intimate as they slowly get to know one another. After Marianne admits to the ruse, she shows her completed portrait to Heloise. Heloise despairs because she’s been misled and feels Marianne’s painting fails to capture her true essence. Marianne offers to repaint her portrait and Heloise’s mother accepts. For a brief time, the two women enjoy a passionate relationship before Marianne leaves and Heloise prepares for her upcoming marriage to a Milanese man she has never met.
DP Claire Mathon explores the creative relationship between Marianne and Heloise and how they inspire one another. Mathon often uses long takes that allow her camera to capture all the variations of the actresses’ features. She adjusts the lighting and camera angles to modify their features and reveal the powerful attraction between the two women, their desire for one another, their intimacy, and the unique rhythm of their love story. Although Mathon and Marianne work in different mediums and eras, it often feels as if they are drawing from the same toolbox. Women watching women has never seemed so fascinating.