Burning desire | Movie previews

Céline Sciamma’s magnificent period love story “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a film marvel. Exploring the slow romance between two women – a bride-to-be (Adèle Haenel) and the artist hired to paint her wedding portrait (Noémie Merlant) – it’s a perfect blend of exquisite visual storytelling and raw emotion, with two indelible performances of its main actresses.

Set in 18th century France, the film begins as Marianne (Merlant) arrives on the Breton coast, where she has been commissioned by a wealthy countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Haenel). The finished painting must be sent to Heloise’s future husband, a Milanese nobleman whom she has never met, for his evaluation and to draw him further into the union.

Héloïse resists marriage, and Marianne learns that the previous artist could not finish her painting, finally driven out by the total refusal of her subject to sit down for him. So Heloise’s mother offers Marianne to pass herself off as a hired companion for her daughter, accompanying her on a walk so that she does not feel alone. During these visits, Marianne must observe Heloise as closely as she can, memorizing every detail of her figure and features to use later, when she picks up her brush to paint in secret each night.

Sciamma called her film a “manifesto of the feminine gaze”, and it is indeed a celebration of the act of looking. Through these prolonged gazes, a desire grows between the women. Used to living in a society that takes little interest in the inner life of women, dating Marianne and Héloïse is largely through looks, subtle gestures and body language.

The director captures the way an artist’s gaze captures and at the same time invents his subject entirely through the way the artist sees it. The film becomes the story of a woman expressing her desire through her art, but it in turn allows Héloïse to free herself from the traditionally gendered role of muse in order to get closer to a collaborator.

In the middle of the film, Heloise’s mother has to leave for a long time. Alone (with the governess Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami), women can live an almost utopian existence. In full control of their lives for the first and perhaps the only time, they can enjoy a new sense of freedom and freedom.

The roles assigned to them seem to dissolve naturally, as class and station don’t seem to matter as much. The film examines the bonds of love and brotherhood as well as the divisions of class barriers, but there is a painful desire, extending from the knowledge that this existence is only temporary.

From movies like “Tomboy” to “Girlhood” and “Waterlilies”, Sciamma’s specialty is tender coming-of-age stories. Every moment of his work here is carefully considered and thought through. Her film is deeply sensual, alive with a crackling physical and emotional intimacy that matches the intensity of women’s passion.

It’s also a celebration of the act of creation, and Sciamma’s camera remains enthralled with the process of artistic creation. By intelligently using the inserts featuring the hands of the painter Hélène Delmaire, we are allowed to watch Marianne strive to translate the truth of her subject onto the canvas. She works through drafts where her rendering of Heloise isn’t quite right, capturing her physical characteristics but still somehow lacking something ineffable.

Adapted to a deeply felt love story centered on creating visual art, the film in itself is a magnificent piece of visual art, and cinematographer Claire Mathon uses light in a way that transforms every frame into its own. own oil painting.

Interestingly, the film forgoes any sort of musical score outside of three key uses of diegetic music, including a memorable sequence where lovers listen to a choir at an all-female gathering around a bonfire. The Haunting Song of Women is an original piece of music, and it’s unlike anything I’ve heard in a period movie.

For all of its problems, the Oscars’ most useful function is to highlight films that otherwise might not get the attention they deserve. So I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that after “Portrait” was not selected by France as the country’s official submission in the International Feature Film category, it seemed completely off the radar. of the Academy. Because it didn’t ultimately gain attention in any other category, the film didn’t enjoy that Oscar bump. But I sincerely hope the public will find it.

Anchored by two exquisite performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a quivering love story about desire, the feminine gaze and the enduring beauty of art. Both intimate and expansive, it’s a vanishing romance that got me cinematically floating out of the theater. It’s so good, and without a doubt my favorite movie of the past year.

Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Comments on this article can be sent to [email protected]

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