A Haunting Love Told in brushstrokes: Celine Sciamma’s Unforgettable PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Imager from Youtube.

Every year the New York Film Festival brings about 30 new World, US, and North American premieres which get shuffled along with retrospectives, documentaries, and a new section, Projections, in which smaller films, usually by new and/or rising directors, also get their own screening, It’s usually a gargantuan task for someone like me to pencil in about one to two movies a day during a 17-day stint and often it’s just nigh impossible. Plus, with some of them colliding with others, and the Film Society’s rather tight schedule of screening a movie at least twice (that is, until demand becomes overwhelming and they are called upon to open more slots for viewers hungry for first dibs, well before the mainstream can get to it), it can sometimes be a losing battle and one has to throw in the towel and catch at least a portion of the festivities and, like in the case of Celine Sciamma’s new movie, wait for its proper release.

I was lucky. Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t hit theaters until mid-February, 2020, which is criminal. I don’t know why it couldn’t have just stayed in theaters during December, when it made its one-week appearance for Oscar consideration. The screening I went to at the Angelika was packed to the gills — there was barely a seat left in the house where one could place ones drink and coat. That alone shows the power and allure this movie, Sciamma’s first incursion into period piece and a masterstroke at that, has had on its audience. I arrived about 20 minutes before seating, and already there were audience goers lavishing praise on the film, commenting on this being their second time viewing it to “capture the essence of art rendered on cinema”. It made me jealous; I sat there sipping my espresso thinking had I only made other choices, had I only not seen only wish I had seen it at the Alice Tully, but it conflicted with the screening of Liberté. [Not that I regret it.] Oh, well. Quel dommage.

Up to now, Celine Sciamma had been known almost primarily for her coming of age stories set in today’s time. None of her movies (Tomboy, Girlhood) hinted at the ambition, the sheer scope, that she showcases in her current movie (which is probably why I also may have decided against it). Reader, when Portrait of a Lady on Fire premieres next month you owe it to yourself, if you love movies as much as I do, to skip the graveyard of horror, action, and dull comedies to go see this movie alone. If you don’t even as much as see another one, that’s okay; all is forgiven. What Sciamma does with a deceptively simple story of tragic love goes far, far beyond what Todd Haynes did with his very own Carol (and I loved that movie to the point that it became my favorite for 2015).

Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes place at the end of the 1800s. Marianne (Noémie Berlant), a young Parisian artist, is hired to paint the portrait of Hëloíse, (Adèle Haenel), a young woman living in a remote area off the coast of Brittany who is betrothed to marry an Italian nobleman. The assignment itself isn’t complicated at all as this was the custom of affluent people about to enter into the institution of marriage; however, upon arrival, Marianne is notified that Hëloíse has been notoriously difficult to paint, as she doesn’t want to marry. Her mother (Valerie Golino) informs Marianne that she will then have to paint the portrait by memory alone and act as a companion to Hëloíse who must not be informed by any means that her portrait is being done.

Noémie Berlant as Marianne in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

The story itself could hinge on this premise alone and for a while it does, but Sciamma is more attuned to slowly revealing a narrative in which both Marianne and Hëloíse start to reveal aspects of themselves, which naturally brings them closer together. When it becomes clear that Marianne is now starting to feel a fraud because a) Hëloíse is a woman she has to lie to, constantly, in order to glean as much visual information as she can in order to terminate her assignment, and b) feelings start to develop. How clever, an insightful, of Sciamma, to not only place two women in a time period when even the possibility of a same-sex attraction could be seen as criminal, but one that because of their isolation from glaring eyes starts to become stronger than the symbolic painting itself. Portrait of a Lady on Fire often looks and feels very Bergmanian, with characters talking with pauses, the camera placed at an angle from their faces that express oh-so much.

Image from IMDB.com

It also moves at a deliberate pace of a thriller even though there is really no mystery at all. Even so, Sciamma’s movie is drenched with the aura of portent (and deservedly so) that it will come across as a puzzle, most pointedly because of Hëloíse herself, who first gets introduced from the back, wearing a black hooded cape, and goes from pregnant, moody silences to sudden, jerky movements as when she attempts to rush towards the cliffs in a mock gesture of suicide (her sister, caught in a similar predicament, threw herself off and died). And what could be that brilliant white vision of Hëloíse that Marianne continues to have at regular intervals throughout the picture?

Dear reader, if you enjoy movies that move slowly, but with purpose, who reveal their cards one at a time, who don’t adhere to what you would be guessing should happen and take off into unknown territory which itself grounds the story in a romance steeped in fate, lush sensuality, and the sudden, overwhelming notion that this could all end in a crushing halt, then this is the movie for you to view, digest, and enjoy. The colors are alive in Sciamma’s movie in ways that make it look, itself, as painting in movement (as opposed to the use of hyperrealism to make every color an experience in Giallo). Adèle Haenel, a French actress (and Sciamma’s former girlfriend) has never been better, doing next to nothing but letting her own presence narrate the entire movie. Noémie Berlant carries the heavy dramatic load since she is almost always on screen, silently rendering her work of art with a meticulous delicacy that often seems as though she were “creating” her own vision of Hëloíse. Portrait of a Lady on Fire also contains one of the single most striking final shots –itself a work of art and I don’t mean to sound cliche — I have ever seen committed on film. It is so overwhelming in emotion that I felt as though I would drown in my own tears and choke from the pain I felt in my throat. If love were this deep, and rendered eternal through a clever positioning of a finger in a book… I would live forever.

I will call Portrait of a Lady on Fire one of France’s highest achievements in cinema and a movie that years from now will feature well up there with the movies of Renoir, Truffaut, Demy, and Tourneur. Go, go, go see it, you owe it to yourself to do so. It premieres February 14, 2020, in select cinemas.

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