My breath caught in my throat, choked but ecstatic. My skin erupted into goosebumps, making the fine arms on my hair stand on end, scratching at the denim of the jacket the covered them. My scalp felt electrified, as if every hair with pulsing with the music, a classical concerto I’ve heard a million times before feel like a spontaneous miracle. The physical pleasure of this elation raced down to the ends of my toes, curling them reflexively. This is the effect the final scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire had over me. I was overcome and astonished, experiencing the full-bodied enthrallment of the enraptured woman, who held the final frame with a riveting yet effortless intensity. This absolute marvel of a movie is not to be missed.
As follow-up to her widely praised coming-of-age drama Girlhood, French writer/director Céline Sciamma has unveiled the original period-drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which unfurls the tale of two lesbian lovers thrown together on a remote island in 18th-century Brittany. We begin with Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a talented painter with a masterful hand and a stern expression. Via a rickety rowboat, she’s lugged to this little island to paint the portrait of a young lady. It’s intended as a sort of advertisement meant to hook her a husband. Once completed, the portrait shall be sent to Milan in hopes of securing the engagement of an unseen gentleman. But there’s a catch. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) has no interest in this would-be marketing tool or in marrying some random gentleman she doesn’t know. She refuses to sit for a portrait. So Marianne and Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) concoct a plan. Marianne will masquerade as a companion for the headstrong Héloïse, accompanying her for walks along the beach each day. She will slyly study her, then paint her portrait in secret.
During these walks, Marianne’s dark eyes race along every inch of Héloïse’s skin, and the camera follows. Here is the gentle curve of pink lips, nested firmly in a frown. Here is the slope of an eyelid that rests gracefully above eyes a startling blend of green and blue. Here is the perfect architecture of her ear. Here the gentle slide of her collarbone. But when the painting is finished, it is lifeless. It looks like this young woman, yet misses her radiance. Marianne will try again. But this time, she will get much closer to her subject. Both women will unlock the secrets of their hearts, explore the simple glories of this island that Héloïse does not wish to leave, and discover the pleasures to be found in each others’ arms.
Imagine if Jane Austin had written a lesbian romance, and you have some idea of the elegant marvel Sciamma has created. Both women trained in refinement, Marianne and Héloïse behave with restraint. Their words are cautious as their exchanged glances are so aflame you can practically feel the heat on your cheeks. (Or maybe you’re just blushing.) The first act is one where both women hide behind the roles they are asked to play, the companion and the lady. But as Marianne’s true intention is revealed, the performances of Merlant and Haenel slide away from this restraint. Beautiful brows arch in surprise. A stony frown explodes into a luminous smile. They reveal themselves to each other, body and soul, corsets and bustles shed alongside inhibitions and civil facades. “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something,” Héloïse whispers to Marianne, and indeed it feels they are. Before where there was anger, regret, and distrust, these two women blossom passion, love, and orgasmic joy.
An ode to Marianne’s painterly eye and tender hand, Portrait of a Lady On Fire is visually staggering in its beauty. Every frame feels like a painting made of light. Lanterns and candle-light bring warmth and texture to its night scenes that shed life on the secret lives of women, from love affairs to abortive elixirs, and wild zone bonding. Like the film’s artistic heroine, cinematographer Claire Mathon captures these women in light and angles that make them glorious, yet never loses the life of them. The colors, the gesture, the line of a chin falling way to the neck, is all defined on-screen like a masterfully applied brushstroke. Again and again, I gasped at the exquisite yet simple beauty displayed in women sitting together for a moment of peace, cradling each other in a moment of trauma, or clutching to each other in a moment of excitement. Then, giving a uniquely cinematic oomph to all this grandeur is a sound design that is ruthless in its intimacy.
This island is a quiet one, often achingly so. In the countess’s house, the scrape of a brush on canvas seems almost obscene. There’s no non-diegetic music in the film that might otherwise emphasize emotion. Indeed, Héloïse laments missing the convent where she was educated because she yearns for music. All she gets here is the rustle of voluminous skirts. The pluck of the fabric as the sweet-faced maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami)stitches embroidery. The heavy breathing of arduous walks around the island or nighttime trysts. All these little sounds give Portrait of Lady On Fire an almost suffocating sense of intimacy. You can practically feel the heated breath of the ladies onscreen, the sound of it is so profound amidst so much silence. But then, there’s music. Used sparingly. Used precisely. Used masterfully.
In one show-stopping sequence, the women of the island gather at night around a bonfire. Beneath its raucous licks and crackles, you can’t hear the gossip they whisper around it. Their secrets are kept safe by the flames. Then, it is time to be heard. They begin a song, a melodious but odd thing of clapping and gasps, and voices untamed. Enveloped in the incredible sounds of this community of women, the mournful Héloïse smiles from behind the flames. And the sound of this song rushes through the theater, sweeping us up in the sensation of her delight, the freedom found within it. More music will come in that final shot, which is so striking I won’t dare do it the injustice of spoiling it or trying to paint it with words. But I can tell you of that incredible sensation, that elation that rippled through my whole body, lighting me up, like a lady on fire.
Portrait of a Lady On Fire makes its Canadian Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Header Image Source: TIFF