In the (Art)House showcases our most anticipated or recent-favourite arthouse films.
“Real love may be fleeting, but as Portrait of a Lady on Fire explains, art and memory are immortal.”
Clarisse Loughrey, INDEPENDENT (UK)
French writer and director Céline Sciamma has delivered some of the most flawless minimalist cinema in recent years and her latest directorial effort Portrait of a Lady on Fire is another example of her impeccable feel for structure, emotional resonance and character catharsis with a consuming piece of erotic expression.
Set in the 1770s against the windswept French island of Brittany, the story follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant) a painter who has been commissioned to paint noblewomen Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so that a prospective Milanese nobleman may decide to take her as his wife. With Héloïse refusing the previously commissioned painter, Marianne has been instructed to conduct her work in secret, absorbing as much of her subject’s face and figure as possible, before transposing them onto a canvas from memory. Though beginning as deception Marianne’s gaze begins to penetrate further and the two women’s relationship blossoms into an unspoken and intense desire for one another.
Sciamma’s use of texture, mood, and sound build to an ever-mounting tension between Marianne and Héloïse. The quiet atmospheric sounds of the empty estate, the light touches, the restrained stares the two women lock into, all build to intense moments of eroticism (the restrained approach is reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). It invites the audience to participate in the characters’ longing and experience every subtlety of desire.
Themes of the film expand beyond forbidden romance, exploring women helping each other to survive whilst under patriarch control. We’re first exposed to a vastly empty estate on a remote island. Yet throughout the film, this initial bleakness progresses into possibility, the emptiness surrounding Héloïse is a measure of her freedom, not a sign of her deprivation. The two women find strength within each other but it adds to their tragedy, they both know they must return to their eventual imprisonment. Their relationship symbolises a unity that women can find within one another and a catharsis of self-acceptance.
The title Portrait of a Lady On Fire references the picture that Marianne paints of Héloïse, its depicted in a stark landscape, with flames engulfing the hem of her dress and asks the question; is it the portrait, or the lady, who will be destroyed? It’s empowering and sobering, finding the necessity and possibility of freedom and romance, even in the face of desolation. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a complete artistic vision, showcasing the power in subtlety and a, quite literally, slow-burning narrative.
We feel that not enough people got to see this masterpiece when it was originally released in theatres last December, but fear not, Portrait of a Lady On Fire is available to rent or purchase on iTunes now!