Arresting the senses and stimulating the mind, Céline Sciamma has made one of the most breathtaking screen romances of the decade with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. After her powerful previous features, Girlhood and Tomboy, Sciamma pivots slightly into a new direction, one that expands upon her queer humanism into more formal approaches. The depth of feeling is still wondrous, but moreso than ever before, the auteur has crafted something quite intellectually rigorous and intuitive that further elevates her emotional naturalism. Here she makes something intellectual and expressionist, bent on removing the creative divides between person and object in matters of art and of love. By the end she leaves you dizzy, catching your breath in the passionate throws of the film’s formalist embrace.
Surrounded by crashing waves and crackling fires that that create a cacophony of unspoken truths, the film is set on an island in Brittany, removed from the watchful eyes of men. A portrait artist named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives with the assignment to paint a portrait in secret of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) that is to be given to her fiancé. Marianne must act as companion to Héloïse and paint in the night. As Marianne struggles with capturing the tempestuous Héloïse in canvas, the two begin a life-changing love affair.
There is as much on Sciamma’s mind here about the nature of love as the nature of the muse – what is the object of affection if not a creative source for the artistry of our feeling? But from Sciamma’s refined point of view, the person on the opposite end has their own experience, their own perspective, and, most importantly, their own personhood. This is a film that is, even within the confines of a woman’s role in the eighteenth century, about liberation. Héloïse begins the film as an object, an artifact before her circumstance defines her, and ends the film as her own woman. Her own discoveries are for her own keeping, her own life.
Merlant and Haenel are both vibrantly alive in Sciamma’s vision, creating a love story of burning subtlety and flirtation under mounting knowing glances. Haenel is especially possessed, assembling Héloïse with a scarcely contained tangle of convictions, giving her tidal shifts from rage to curiosity to self-conviction. The actress’ piercing glance incinerates the screen and dices straight to the solar plexus, disheveling our perceptions or Merlant’s composure with the wriest gesture. A pulsing, reaching humanity remains at the core of the film with the passion of these two performances, grasping us by the neck to maintain a very personal experience.
Intimacy is both on screen and between the Sciamma’s eye and the audience, with the film composed in glances and soulful imagery as if to make the audience flinch under its glorious weight. Rare is the film that feels so imposing and so consuming, one that holds our spirit and our mind so very captive, cresting us on waves of emotion. Much of that power belongs in the imaginative complexity of stillness in cinematographer Claire Mathon’s imagery, riffing on the imagery of men such as Persona and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
In the film’s closing moments, Portrait of a Lady on Fire becomes gaspingly sumptuous, the kind of thing to elicit gasps in long-projected payoffs and a state of euphoria as you leave the theatre from its final, ecstatic shot. Here is where we feel the cumulative creative affect of what Sciamma has achieved, a slow (third degree) burn that broadens the mind and clenches the heart. Céline Sciamma hasn’t just delivered one of the year’s most cinematic powerhouses, she’s also entered the upper echelon of greatest modern filmmakers.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.