Winner of Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at Cannes, Céline Sciamma’s striking eighteenth-century tale of romantic obsession burns bright with female desire and the craft of a masterful filmmaker.
Between Water Lillies, Tomboy and Girlhood, outstanding French director Céline Sciamma has explored notions of gender and identity, especially for adolescent or younger girls, through a distinctively female prism. As diverse as her films have been, all of which have screened at NZIFF, none prefigured her ravishing and bewitching Portrait of a Lady on Fire, considered by many as the best film in competition at Cannes.
In a radical departure from her earlier work, Sciamma ventures back to the late 1700s and to majestic coastal Brittany to recount the tale of Marianne and Héloïse, and of the portrait that engenders their encounter. Marianne, an artist, has been commissioned by Héloïse’s mother, a countess, to paint her daughter’s portrait. Fresh out of the convent, Héloïse is already betrothed to a Milanese aristocrat, whom she’s never met, and the portrait is destined for her future husband as testament to her charms. None too pleased with this custom or her situation, Héloïse has already refused to sit for another portraitist. The countess therefore demands subterfuge: Marianne must pose as a companion to Héloise by day and capture her likeness on canvas from memory at night…
While alert to period detail and historical social mores, the film is no fusty academic reconstruction. It even allows for slight anachronism – the intermingling of classes seems from a more modern era. But this intricately composed work anchors its truth in poetic realms. Gazes intersect and behold, passions ignite, and desire etches the bodies, hearts and souls of lovers whom society’s dictates will irrevocably force apart.
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