Celine Sciamma is a modern-day Bronte – the characters, the forbidden romance, the setting which utilises powerful ambience and pathetic fallacy; all of these elements would fit nice and snug into Wuthering Heights.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is set on an island inhabited solely by women towards the end of the eighteenth century. It is especially apt as any male protagonists would completely change the dynamic of the female leads. In fact, they do. The brief appearance of a sailor marks the beginning and end of the leads’ relationship. His appearance is brief and near-wordless yet heart wrenching due to context.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a freelance painter, is commissioned to paint the ‘Lady on Fire’, Heloise (Adèle Haenel). What unfolds is not so simple considering the painting is for her betrothed, a man Heloise has never met nor wants to marry. So, in turn, she refuses to be painted, to pose, to even let any artist see her face fully. This adds a surprising amount of tension to the plot as Marianne must paint her subject in secret.
“The food is covered in a delicious orange glow yet the background is dark and quiet. This brings to mind essential artists such as Caravaggio who would utilise tenebrism…”
The film is a masterpiece in cinematography. The way the film records fire is brilliant and easily highlights it as a key motif. A favourite shot is Marianne preparing a rustic meal of cheese and bread under the light of a single candle. The food is covered in a delicious orange glow yet the background is dark and quiet. This brings to mind essential artists such as Caravaggio who would utilise tenebrism: a type of 17th-century painting that portrays realistic firelight with darkened tones and long shadows. Thanks to cinematographer Claire Mathon, this film easily sits in the halls of ‘every frame a painting’, with sumptuous colour-coded costumes, daylight landscapes that stretch far and wide and most importantly the fire that embodies the passions our lead characters share.
The picture is beguiling; it goes beyond a bland costume drama but is reserved enough to not be melodramatic. The characters are grounded and believable. Even the brief humour comes across as natural banter and never takes away from the intensity of the character dynamics. Far and away, this is clearly one of the top films of the year and is a nigh essential piece if you enjoy lesbian cinema.