Céline Sciamma’s films are uniquely attuned to examining the female body, without a whiff of exploitation or a sexually charged agenda to be seen. After tackling films dealing with puberty and gender dysphoria, she’s taken a seemingly unusual step for her fourth feature, 18th century period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu). No longer is she dealing with the struggles of young people as they deal with their changing bodies, but she is taking the logical next step, crafting a romance all around the very idea of capturing the essence of the female body in a work of art. I wasn’t expecting her first film in such a distinctive period setting to be the one most attuned to her thematic sensibilities to date.
Nominated for the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes, where it will also compete for the Queer Palm for best LGBT film at the festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a slow burning (pun definitely not intended) romance that depicts female sexuality without a leeriness – feeling sensual without being remotely explicit. It’s so rare to see female sexuality depicted in its normalcy onscreen, and it’s still rare for an openly lesbian filmmaker to actually be holding the reigns over a lesbian love story; as powerful as many lesbian romances directed by men can be, they never fully ring true in the way Sciamma’s latest film does so effortlessly, portraying an honest and openly sensual partnership without even the vaguest undercurrent of creepiness.
Set in 1770, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter hired to do a unique project; paint the portrait of Heloïse (Adèle Haenel) in the hope that it will attract her a rich suitor from overseas. The inherent problem is that Heloïse has been reluctant to pose in the past, and Marianne has been hired with the explicit instruction not to let her subject know she has been sent there to paint her – having to focus on parts of her body, and memorise them when painting in private. After Heloïse sees the initial finished portrait, she decides that the painting needs to be done, and that Marianne can be trusted to spend more time with her to fully capture her likeness. During this time, the pair grow closer, and Marianne begins to realise their romantic entanglement will be over the minute she has completed her painting.
To delve in too deep in to the particulars of their romance, and the overt literary parallels to other famous fleeting romances throughout, would be to neuter the film’s emotional impact; what starts as a quiet character study slowly builds up to the most powerful, heartbreaking closing shot of an LGBT film since Call Me By Your Name. Similarly to Luca Guadagnino, Sciamma understands that the portrayal of sexuality doesn’t inherently mean you have to depict sex, and she creates more memorable sensual images by withholding these expected moments.
This is a film where the most erotically charged scene involves an armpit being caressed, Sciamma’s studying of the female body leading her to avoid the parts that any male filmmaker would linger on were he to make his version of this story. It’s passionate in a manner unconventional to cinema, but in a way that feels like it could be universally appreciated; who hasn’t found themselves daydreaming with a partner, focusing on the small details and imperfections of their bodies that make them unique? Sciamma, now fully moved away from pubescent coming of age stories, adapts this mindset into a conventional romance, with the unconventional intimacy feeling quietly revolutionary.
Celine Sciamma has been one of the most under appreciated filmmakers working for quite some time, and her first foray into the romance genre should hopefully give more exposure to her bold filmography. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is the perfect next step in her evolution as a filmmaker, and proves that even the most familiar love story can feel fresh in the right director’s hands – in this case, attuned to Sciamma’s thematic interests, but with a passion seldom seen in her previous, more detached character studies.