Writer and director Céline Sciamma is renowned for her beautiful and nuanced coming of age films. With a back catalogue filled with stunning reflections on the transition to adulthood, from Water Lilies to Tomboy. However, with her latest film ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, Sciamma breaks with her own convention. While equally demonstrating that the urgency of love and belonging is not just a preserve of teenage life. In turn, bringing us a film that not only shines with the power and intensity of hidden love. But also offers a classical reflection of the barriers imposed on women in art during the 18th Century. Ultimately delivering a film that radiates style, love and art in equal measure. While equally lacing its narrative with the directorial flare of both Alfred Hitchcock and Jane Campion.
Set in the late 18th century, before the French Revolution. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a travelling portrait artist, her passion for painting kicking against a male dominated artistic world. On arriving at a secluded chateau in Brittany, Marianne finds her latest assignment filled with mystery and hidden family intrigue. Her job being the completion of a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young lady of the house. The portrait destined to be dispatched to Héloïse’s future husband, a Milanese nobleman. A man who Héloïse is yet to meet, her prospective portrait acting as a one sided introduction before the arranged marriage.
However, this arranged union is shrouded in sadness and tragedy. As the family mourn the suicide of Héloïse’s older sister. Her suicide being an escape from the very marriage her younger sister must now endure. And with this is mind Héloïse uses her only real power (stubbornness) to prevent the artists hired by her mother (Valeria Golino) from finishing their work.
Therefore, Marianne finds herself instructed to present as a companion to Héloïse, and not an artist. Discreetly using her powers of observation to complete the portrait in the shadow of night. However, as a friendship buzzing with repressed desire begins to form between Marianne and Héloïse. The bonds between both women become stronger, each coming to understand the oppression of the other. Leading both women into a secret and urgent relationship of both love and freedom. One where both women push at the barriers of 18th Century France. While the seclusion of the chateau protects them for the reality of the world, for a brief and divine moment in time.
Director: Céline Sciamma