MIFF 2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review
By Kristen Iliopoulos
As the winner of the Best Screenplay award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the first film directed by a woman to win the Queer Palm, Portrait of a Lady on Fire proves its worthy of its prestigious accomplishments.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows Marianne, a young painter, played by the striking Noémie Merlant, who at the end of the 1700s, is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait for a defiant young woman named Heloise, played by the superb Adèle Haenel. As Marianne learns that Heloise has refused to pose for portraits with other painters, Heloise’s mother suggests Marianne disguise herself as a maid in an attempt to gain her trust.
The first time we meet Heloise, we see her caped silhouette lurking in the shadows, reminiscent of Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental piece, Meshes of the Afternoon. There’s an air of mystery surrounding the story we’re about to see unfold – creating questions and building tension.
This tension reaches it peak further along in the film with an almost frustrating romantic pressure between Marianne and Heloise; it’s easy to find your brain screaming, “hurry up and kiss already”, and without spoiling whether their relationship is written in the stars or as doomed as the myth of Orpheus, the on-screen chemistry between the two actresses blooms beautifully.
Although romance is center-stage, the film also successfully tackles themes of friendship, mental health, and physical health. When Heloise’s’ maid, Sophie, played by the angelic Luàna Bajrami, discovers she may be pregnant, the women band together to seek to abort her pregnancy in ways that sadly still reflect our society’s oppressive inaccessibility to make choices about one’s own body.
The female-centric crew, headed by writer and director, Céline Sciamma, and cinematographer, Claire Mathon, craft a tale that truly deserves a seat at the table when discussing the best of contemporary queer cinema. Mathon’s cinematography shines and complements Sciamma’s directing, creating a beautiful choreography of the actors, as well as still moments of tableaus reminiscent of the grand paintings that the film hints at.
The impeccable effort of costume designer, Dorothée Guiraud also sets the film in motion, and her attention to detail is clear; the characters rarely change their outfits, creating a historical accuracy of a time when most women only owned one or two dresses. This is accompanied by the picturesque work of set designer, Thomas Grezaud, whose meticulous backdrops allow the film to succeed in its visual storytelling.
While Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s enigmatic beginning may paint an unclear picture of where the film is headed, by its conclusion, one can understand how masterful Celine Sciamma’s writing is; every single syllable spoken (as well as those left unsaid) proving so purposeful and significant to the tale being told.