The spirit of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse finds a specific echo in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which arrived box-fresh for awards season as a thoroughbred contender; this is art-house fare, but no worse for that, a sumptuous, haunting love story with moments of dynamism and an attitude that’s catnip to the chattering classes.
Rivette, of course, deconstructed the process of creating art in his celebrated four-hour study of sculptor and model; Sciamma takes a similar subject, although in this instance questions of the male gaze are subverted because men are barely seen. Instead, we have the love between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter on a secret mission, to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a remote location (Brittany). But the subject is reluctant; the portrait is to celebrate a prospective marriage, and that marriage is unwanted. Marianne artfully betrays and then gains the trust of her subject by stealing glances and looks to complete her portrait, and then destroying it when Héloïse complains. The relationship between the women blossoms into a lesbian affair, but society intrudes, and the big question is how their love might survive or endure these obstacles?
A subtitled film about portraiture might sound like hard tack, although the surprising presence of Valerie (Hot Shots!) Golinio offers some respite, and there is in fact a literal lady on fire to justify the film’s quirky title. This is a film driven by the luminous performances of the leads, who capture the intensity of a forbidden but natural relationship, and who evoke passion with the smallest movements. The landscapes also spark memories of Jane Campion’s The Piano, but without the sense of melodrama; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not for sensation seekers, but a meditative, visually calculated piece that finds visual metaphors for the inner workings of the two women depicted.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was, alongside Parasite, a clear front runner in the Foreign Picture stakes since Cannes 2019; despite the adulation of the highbrow critics, it’s a love story that could attract the romantic at heart, and those who have the patience for the genteel pace will be rewarded with a beautifully told story of verboten love.