A picture is worth a thousand words — and leads to a thousand longing glances — in writer/director Celine Sciamma’s passionate drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in remote mid-1700s Brittany, it follows the intense relationship between painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and her unknowing subject, Heloise (Adele Haenel), who has just left sheltered convent life.
The two young women form a powerful bond as Marianne observes Heloise under the guise of being a paid companion. The ruse is required due to Heloise’s reluctance to sit for a portrait for her upcoming wedding to a man she doesn’t know. Hired by Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino), Marianne must paint from memory at night after spending her days by Heloise’s side, exploring the craggy, wind-whipped coastline.
As the two get to know each other, Marianne works to capture her muse’s essence on canvas — but she finds it elusive until Heloise’s mother leaves for a few days and artist and subject become even closer to each other. Art, inspiration, and passion entwine as Heloise enjoys her first taste of freedom and Marianne channels her intense feelings into her brush and palette.
Sciamma’s script is lean, but that very spareness challenges Merlant and Haenel to convey their emotions though looks, gestures, and expressions, rather than words. And it’s a challenge they more than rise to. The two women are luminous in their performances, fully inhabiting Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s lushly filmed world. That world may be one in which rules and expectations place limits on what Marianne and Heloise can be to each other, but their story will resonate with anyone in any era who’s ever loved and lost.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nikki Baughan: From her 2007 feature debut Water Lillies, which explored a love triangle between three teenage girls, to her second film Tomboy, about a 10-year-old transgender boy, and 2017’s tour-de-force Girlhood, which explored the redemptive power of young female friendship, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma has proved herself to be unmatched at bringing the authentic, diverse female experience to the screen. Her latest, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, is no exception. Set on an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, the story concerns a female artist, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), tasked with painting the wedding portrait of the elusive Heloise (Adele Haenel); a feisty young woman who has no wish to be married off, let alone to pose for the picture. As the pair spend time together, Marianne’s covert observations soon give rise to an obvious attraction which they fight to control. Performances from Merlant and Haenel are astonishing in their intensity, unspoken desire and longing hanging heavy in every look, the slightest touch. Sciamma’s screenplay is equally as restrained, while cinematography by Claire Mathon captures both the intimacy of the girls relationship and the craggy cliffs and expansive horizons of the windswept location. Sensitive, expertly-observed and quietly powerful, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is one of the most beautiful, memorable films of the year.
Leslie Combemale 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. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is unceremoniously delivered by boat to a Brittany beach. She climbs a steep cliff, baggage in tow, to the house where she will execute a commission to paint the portrait of the young lady of the house, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to send to her fiancé, a Milanese aristocrat Héloïse has never met. What ensues in this period French drama is both a delicate illustration of the mystery of attraction and love, and an artistic portrait of not just one woman, but of all women—how they conform and rebel, come together and move apart, live and die within the boundaries of their times. Céline Sciamma’s films have been dedicated to carving space for women in the male-dominated narratives of history and art, and this, her fourth film, is an absolute masterpiece of pacing and portraiture that gives all of its characters, from Héloïse’s sensibly conformist mother (Valeria Golino) to the servant (Luàna Bajrami) who unself-consciously dines with the painter and her subject, time to tell their stories as well. Recent films like Roma and The Chambermaid have focused on the unseen lives of women of the servant class. Portrait of a Lady on Fire dignifies all women whom history has overlooked.
Sheila Roberts 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. Read full review.
Marina Antunes Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful tale of rebellion, friendship, love and unrequited love. Sciamma’s portrait of three willful women fighting the system in their own ways is carefully observed, thoroughly engaging, and powerful. Gorgeously produced, shot and acted, the film culminates in a stunning final moment that will forever be remembered.
MaryAnn Johanson This is one of my favorite movies of the year, and one of the best movies of the year, and those don’t always overlap. It’s an extraordinary look at the secret world of women, which shouldn’t be secret because women are half of the world, except that pop culture and high culture have had and continue to have little use for women’s perspectives, and so women’s lives remain hidden. (It doesn’t matter that this story is set *centuries* ago. There are thing depicted here that remain true today, and hidden today.) Here the two combine in a movie that is solidly good honest romantic melodrama while also having plenty deep and dishy to say about how women’s realities are ignored and how women are — simply, and criminally — literally unseen by what we are meant to deem the larger culture. This is a movie about nothing more and nothing less than women *seeing* and women *being seen.* In a more just world, I would have to say more than that to explain what makes this film so unusual, but it’s so rare for either to be true that to have both be true is a miracle.
Loren King Portrait of a Lady on Fire, winner of the best screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is an unforgettable love story that unspools at a slow burn until the final act, which blazes with an incandescence. The women don’t end up together — no surprise, given the times, and this outcome is made clear by the film’s opening scene. But through artistic images of one another — those they recorded, what they revealed — they keep alive a precious, private memory forever burned into their hearts and minds. Read full review.
Pam Grady: An artist finds her muse when she’s commissioned to surreptitiously paint a wedding portrait of a young woman just returned from a convent in 18th-century Brittany in this sensual, gorgeously lensed drama. The contrast between Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and Heloise (Adele Haenel) is striking. Raised by her painter father in the bohemian world of artists, Marianne has always had agency (borrowing her father’s name to tread where women aren’t allowed), has been immersed in a world of art and music, and has had relationships. Heloise would have taken her orders, satisfied with the life of a nun, if she hadn’t been pulled back to the secular life of an arranged marriage. An attraction brews between these two very different women that sends an erotic charge pulsing through Celine Sciamma’s evocative narrative. But while a love story does unfold, what makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire indelible is its portrayal of women in a rigid, male-dominated society struggling against those strictures and defining their own lives on their own terms—even if only for a little while.
Jennifer Merin Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a flawless film and a truly triumphant expression of the female perspective. Set in France in 1760, the film presents the story of Marianne who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left the convent and been betrothed against her will to a man she’s never met. Because Héloïse is a reluctant bride-to-be, Marianne must paint secretly. Pretending to be a hired companion, observing her by day and working on the portrait by night. The bond of genuine friendship that develops between them evolves into a passionate relationship, making their roles with regard to each other extremely immediate, complex and fascinating. Performances by Noemie Merlant as Marianne and Adele Haenel as Héloïse are simply superb. Claire Mathon’s magnificent cinematography exquisitely captures moments of the women’s intimacy as well as the beauty of the sweeping and wildly windswept coastal landscape. The beautifully crafted film and its compelling story shine a light on the ways in which women’s friendship pushes them past repression. Brava Sciamma and your all female cast and crew.
Nell Minow:As is fitting for a film about an artist, every shot in this film is composed like a painting. And as is fitting for a film about women characters at a time when the options for women at every level of society were smotheringly circumscribed, writer/director Céline Sciamma shows us how vibrant and passionate these characters’ lives were beneath the quiet and indirection of their ability to talk about it.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Writer-director Celine Sciamma’s slow-burning period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautifully shot and exquisitely acted exploration of art, desire, freedom, memory, and the enduring and transformative nature of love. Set in 1760 France, the film follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young artist commissioned to paint a portrait of a reluctant subject – a countess’ daughter, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), who is unhappy she must marry her recently deceased sister’s fiancé. At first Marianne pretends to be a paid companion in order to secret observe Heloise by day and paint her by night, but eventually the mother goes out of town and the two women’s friendship grows into an undeniable attraction. The love story is beautifully depicted, concentrating on friendship-based intimacy the two women have formed. Merlant and Haenel each give outstanding performances, particularly as its clear the characters will inevitably, heartbreakingly have to part. Sciamma continues to impress as a thoughtful and thought-provoking filmmaker.
Cate Marquis In this well-crafted historical drama with Gothic overtones, a woman artist arrives to paint the portrait of mysterious young woman soon to be wed. It is an arranged marriage, and the portrait is for her wealth betrothed in Milan, who requires a portrait of his future bride first. However, the would-be bride is uncooperative and the artist is forced to pose as a companion and paint her in secret. But the French-language Portrait of a Lady on Fire soon shifts from this Jane Eyre-like mystery to something quite different under Celine Sciamma’s direction, as the two women develop a strong bond, and the powerfully acted film explores thought-provoking feminist themes.
Title: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Director: Celine Sciamma
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Release Date: December 6, 2019 (limited)
Running Time: 121 minutes
Language: French with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Celine Sciamma
Distribution Company: Neon
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin