Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu) – London Film Festival 2019- Film Review
I was certainly not a stranger to Céline Sciamma’s work after watching the captivating Girlhood (Bande des Filles) and as such her latest film Portrait of a Lady on Fire was towards the top of my list of films to watch during the London Film Festival. I was still not sufficiently prepared for such a mesmerising, spellbinding, moving chef-d’oeuvre which will awaken every core of your being with its sensuality and moody undertones. The opening brush strokes, on a canvas, of Portrait of a Lady on Fire tease at the sumptuousness of the film where virtually every scene’s composition is reminiscent of a Vermeer painting and other renowned pieces of art on display at the Louvre. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of my favourite films of the London Film Festival 2019 so much so that I have now re-watched it on a third viewing, at a Reclaim the Frame Valentine’s Day preview following the screening at the French Film Festival, and I am still captivated by its beauty.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has, quite rightly, been the recipient of many awards. It has received the Queer Palm from Cannes, with Sciamma being the first female director to achieve this, and the Best Screenplay. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has also been awarded the European Screenwriter 2019 prize at the European Film Awards. Such awards are testament to the impressive quality within Portrait of a Lady on Fire as Sciamma’s first period film.
Straddling the concepts of life, love and death, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exquisite tale set in 18th century France. It depicts an era where women were treated as commodities with their hand in marriage effectively sold to a potential suitor, such is Héloïse’s fate or else women were not capable of submitting their pieces of artwork under their own name, such is Marianne’s fate. Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant, is introduced as a walking companion for Héloïse but has in fact been commissioned, by Héloïse’s mother, la Comtesse, to produce a painting, surreptitiously, of Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel, as a gesture to her would be Milanese suitor. In a case of history repeating itself, Héloïse’s mother sadly admits in later scenes to having been consigned to a similar fate with a painting of her arriving at her marital home before she moved in. Set within this framework the notions of repression and limitations of freedom for women fester which is ultimately frustrating, similar to Little Women, despite being reflective of the position of women in that era.
However, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also an emotional study. There is an old-fashioned horror approach to its storytelling that reminded me of The Woman in Black with its dramatic windy clifftops setting, which is a character in its own right, and the minimal use of studio lighting. Sensual candlelit scenes are on display, evoking images of Caravaggio’s paintings with that emphasis on shadow and light, plus from the early revelation that Héloïse’s sister had died mysteriously, as well as the sounds of creaky floorboards in the château, there is an eerie feel. The naturalistic lighting and sounds perpetuate such otherworldly sensations as burning embers of a fire in a fireplace can be heard crackling loudly whilst Marianne smokes a pipe evoking a tantalising, painterly silhouette. The hushes of silence in such a setting are extremely effective and provide the perfect structure to unleash the essence of the supernatural. This assists some of the later scenes of this nature which I will touch upon a bit later in this article.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire provides that connection with memories and the supernatural as we are taken from the present, after discovering that Marianne entitled a painting ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, and we are immersed into Marianne’s memories of her encounter with Héloïse and her mother without notice. Indeed, Héloïse is described as a mystery figure as the housemaid, Sophie, had never seen her and Héloïse had only returned home following the death of her sister.
Héloïse is initially wearing black, as a symbol of death perhaps, in her introductory scene where her face is not exposed and as such we are deliberately required to imagine the characteristics of the enigmatic Héloïse through very impressive, suspenseful tracking shots of her back. Héloïse’s black cape in itself is reminiscent of François Truffaut’s film, The Story of Adele H (L’histoire d’Adèle H) where its eponymous protagonist wears a similar cape following an obsession with love and given that the actress playing Héloïse is Adèle Haenel this may or may not be an intentional reference. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to refer to the sumptuous film Babette’s Feast where the protagonist is equally wearing a striking black cape against the elements in a similarly austere, remote setting.
This concept of seeing or partially seeing appears as a motif within Portrait of a Lady on Fire. There are lingering, surreptitious glances, whilst Marianne attempts to paint Héloïse from her memory, there are scenes where their faces are partially covered by masks, with captivating close ups, and there are scenes with mirrors and partially opened doors which convey such themes. Within the female gaze, these are sensual, subtle aspects of the film which are filmed by Sciamma with such precision and will certainly entice you further as Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship unfolds.
There is a stillness to Portrait of a Lady on Fire; the film is deliberately slow paced to mirror the pace at which the intimacy and the relationship develop, which may not appeal to everyone.
The film evokes a sense of calmness overall and depicts safe environs for the women as the camera mainly remains static during the initial stages of the relationship. We are therefore deliberately immersed in their world by Sciamma’s vision with no escape from the unfolding intensity.
This delicacy within the film is, however, enthralling to watch as the camera pans between the two women with the surreptitious, longing glances and the build-up of intimacy. It is simply a joy to watch the well-acted interaction between Haenel and Merlant with such sizzling onscreen chemistry.
Sciamma and Haenel have previously worked together on Water Lillies (Naissance des Pieuvres), which is apparently where they first met, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire has also been described as a love letter to their former relationship. Knowing this personal aspect makes viewing Portrait of a Lady on Fire an extremely poignant, almost voyeuristic, but dynamic moment. It is particularly poignant, as the film will be released in the UK on 28th February, which is a symbolic date, as Sciamma was aged 28 when she met Haenel and when their relationship ended Haenel was 28. Haenel also has a recent tattoo on the back of her hand featuring the number 28. Such number is also represented within the film, I will not spoil this for you but do be prepared for some tear-jerking scenes.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is extremely rich with symbolism in terms of the aesthetics and the hypnotising cinematography, for which Claire Mathon has been awarded several prizes, but also in terms of mythology and that intertwining of life and death. There is a poignant scene with intercuts of life and death involving Sophie which captures practices that are taken for granted within our modern societies but would have been taboo for women during such period.
We are further hypnotised in such moment by a ritualistic practice over a bonfire, from a community of women, where the spiritual a capella singing reaches its crescendo, with lots of lingering, smouldering gazes between Héloïse and Marianne creating simmering, burning tension. Admittedly, I was transfixed by such mesmerising scenes and found myself drawn to the unfolding activity like the proverbial moth to a flame following that riveting tracking shot; it is such an intoxicating watch!
The fervour and intensity felt in the film jump off the screen; the singing also ignites a high level of fervour which poses a question concerning the religious and spiritual dimensions evident in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The women’s chants in Latin are akin to a meditative prayer, Héloïse has a namesake that was a 12th century French nun and Héloïse herself had returned from a convent. There seems to be that suggestion from Sciamma that despite the rigidity of such religious institution’s structures, it may provide a greater degree of equality, liberty and protection for the women of that era compared to the societal norms. It is a concept echoed by Héloïse and correlates with her seemingly reclusive nature in the early scenes.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has such a poetic rhythm to its storytelling. The majority of the film occurs in an environment absent of men and as such the film portrays a progressive environment in one sense despite the overarching sense of oppression.
There is equally no oppressive non-diegetic music within Portrait of a Lady on Fire to dictate our emotions, the film’s silent scenes are striking, instead there are excerpts played from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which will tug at your heart strings in powerfully moving scenes. The women within the film are all portrayed as being equals despite class divisions and so there is only a hint of the social strata that exists, Sophie and Marianne possess few dresses whilst Héloïse, as nobility, has more possessions.
However, that examination of the relationship between artist and subject remains an egalitarian one in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which may have been as a result of those initial direct and sensual gazes. Equally, in the hands of a female director there is more likelihood of such relationship being treated respectfully on screen which is especially put into context given Haenel’s legal complaint filed against a male director she had formerly worked with in France’s own example of the #MeToo movement.
It is therefore important that there is a continuance of women’s stories being told by women and that such stories receive recognition.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire depicts this story with verve, it has dramatic primary colours, such as the women’s dress colours and the clear blue skies, and whilst it explores that relationship between art, literature and film there is also a ghost story told.
Returning to those supernatural elements referenced earlier, ghostly apparitions are seen which may be connected to that exposition of the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, in a scene which is very French in its style of discourse. The apparition in white in a moment of foreshadowing, evoking images of The Woman in White and the Widows of Culloden hologram from the Alexander McQueen fashion show, could be symbolic of the death surrounding the family or indeed a representation that marriage could be the end of the life that a woman has led to date.
Indeed, in the French language the translation of the term ‘hen party’ (enterrement de la vie de jeune fille) is that of the burial of a young woman’s life which similarly captures that notion. Therefore that unanswered question remains as to whether these ghostly apparitions are simply premonitions of Marianne’s or representative of something else.
Héloïse asks Marianne, whilst collaborating on the painting of herself towards the deadline for its completion, which also signals the end of their time together, ‘how do we know when it is finished?’ to which the response is ‘at the moment when it stops.’ At the moment when Portrait of a Lady on Fire stopped with its powerful, emotional denouement, I did not wish for such a sumptuous tale to end even though I was reaching for the tissues by then! It is also likely that I will forever associate the words ‘Retourne-toi’ (turn around) with the haunting images of this film, such is its impact.
I will therefore eagerly await Sciamma’s next engrossing project especially as she mentioned that art can change the world. On each sold out screening that I attended, the film was met with rapturous applause and so I would certainly urge you to watch this beautiful film and immerse yourself within its stunning imagery and storytelling.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be released in UK cinemas on 28 February 2020