Portrait of a Lady on Fire – an exquisite journey into memory, desire and love

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Céline Sciamma is renowned for her beautiful and nuanced coming-of-age films, from Water Lilies to Tomboy. With her latest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma explores the power and intensity of hidden love and the barriers imposed on women during the 18th Century. The result is a film that radiates style, passion and art equally. Set in the late 18th Century, before the French Revolution, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a travelling portrait artist in a male-dominated art world.

On arriving at a secluded chateau in Brittany, Marianne finds her latest assignment full of mystery and intrigue. Here, her job is the completion of a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young lady of the house, a picture destined to be dispatched to Héloïse’s future husband, a Milanese nobleman. However, this arranged union is shrouded in sadness and tragedy as the family mourns the suicide of Héloïse’s older sister. Héloïse understands the reasons for her sister’s suicide, and as a result, she stubbornly avoids each artist her mother (Valeria Golino) hires. As a result, her mother instructs Marianne to act as a companion to Héloïse, discreetly using her powers of observation to complete the portrait in the shadow of night. However, it’s not long before Marianne and Héloïse’s friendship morphs into something far more sexual. In this secret relationship, both women defy the rules of 18th-century female life as the chateau protects them from the outside world for a brief, divine moment.

Sciamma tells the story from the perspective of Marianne as she searches her memories of a painting completed long ago. Portrait of a Lady on Fire carries an almost dream-like intensity as the audience is allowed access to Marianne’s personal and intimate memories. Of course, stories of forbidden love are a mainstay of LGBTQ+ cinema, but the myriad social discussions held in the narrative make Sciamma’s movie unique. Schiamma uses Marianne’s memories to explore the life and oppression of female artists in 18th Century Europe while exploring sexism, expectation and restriction.

Equally, Sciamma plays with the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as she explores Héloïse’s lack of control over her eventual destiny. The portrait is the final image of Héloïse’s freedom, a picture of an independent woman before her oppression. At the heart of Sciamma’s film is a similar smouldering intensity and sexuality to that found in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, the final scene paying homage to Elio’s fireside contemplation and pain. However, like Call Me By Your Name, beauty permeates the sadness as two women find freedom and love in each other’s arms on the coast of Brittany.

Director: Céline Sciamma

Cast: Noémie MerlantAdèle HaenelLuàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

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