Céline Sciamma’s PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s riveting 1910 fairy tale The Secret Garden, Mary ‘quite contrary’ Lennox travels to the strange foreign land of Yorkshire, where she meets Colin, a cousin whose ambiguous levels of sickness see him trapped in smothering care. Throughout the book, the reader yearns for both Mary and Colin to embrace a life of independence, development granted to both of them by the titular Garden. In writer-director Céline Sciamma’s latest film, the 18th century-set Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, the audience’s yearning is for the story’s two leads to screw each other’s brains out.
Here, we have the perfect mix of Mary and Colin in one character: Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a rebellious rich girl who refuses to sit for a portrait, driving artists away in despair (the reason for this becomes all too apparent, all too quickly). This habit doesn’t sit well with Héloïse’s mother, the fearsome Countess (Valeria Golino), as said picture will effectively serve as the audition for marriage to a Milanese nobleman. Therefore, the desperate matriarch asks Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter of some repute, to travel to their chilly island home in Brittany to paint this faceless woman covertly.
As Marianne sits in a small boat en-route to the island, her canvasses fall into the water. The fellow seafarers – exclusively male – are useless, so she plunges into the cold water to retrieve them herself. In the female-focused world of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, men are incidental at best, ruinous at worst. As our painter reaches her destination and slowly gets to know her reclusive new friend, the sexual tension begins to rise, and audience anticipation along with it.
As with poor Colin, Héloïse is clearly suffocated by her life of near-solitude. It’s in the earlier parts of the film where Sciamma – fuelled by the tremendous success of her previous film, Girlhood – masterfully works in genre flourishes. During scenes of the two women walking along the cliffs, the audience is warned that they shouldn’t consider only sexual tension, but also that of the Hitchcockian variety, the film poised to become a murderous thriller at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, Marianne is haunted by a spectre, the film playing with the visuals of classical ghost stories throughout.
Without getting too much into the plot, sex and nudity are handled with minimalist deftness, never feeling remotely exploitative (it’s almost as if cinema should have more female filmmakers). Not all of the nudity is sexual, and there’s zero explicit fucking; our heroes’ eyes enact most of the action, though Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is sure to claim the best fingering scene of the decade.
While a deeply erotic film - with playful flourishes such as Marianne putting her hands up the cloth covering a piano to tickle the ivories underneath - Portrait Of A Lady On Fire also considers Héloïse and Marianne as a bona-fide couple. The manless house’s adorable teen maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) becomes their surrogate daughter, with the two lovers saving the poor girl from her own mess. They become a family unit, separated from the world. “Being free is being alone?” asks Héloïse. Yes and no, the film seems to answer: as queer women living in 1700s France, society requires them to live a lie (at least partly – they’re not able to express their sexual preferences to the world). However, by opening up to each other, their story truly captures the heady days of early love, their simmering passion and longing as undefeatable as the waves crashing into the cliffs.
James Cain (@LatteThunder) is a British immigrant living in Auckland, Aotearoa. A news editor by day, JC can't function without a steady flow of cinema, be it horror (Kill List!), musicals (Hairspray!), depressing black & white epics (Cold War!), or vampire skater westerns (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night!). He would die for his rabbit son, Porridge.