Painting, like any kind of art, is a personal interpretation of truth. A portrait is as much the painter’s perspective of his or her subject as it is an accurate reflection of their physical appearance. The Mona Lisa isn’t the most iconic piece of art in the world because it meticulously renders its long-deceased subject, but rather because it’s Leonardo da Vinci’s extrapolation of the details he perceives as important to reflect. This notion of an individual artistic voice, complete with idiosyncratic imperfections, fears and desires, is the entire backbone of auteur theory in cinema. However inaccurate the term “auteur” might be in an art form so heavily dependent on collaboration, it’s hard to deny that many of the best directors- like many of the best painters- have a recognizable voice that shines through all their creative efforts.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French director Céline Sciamma‘s Cannes favorite that tragically picked up Best Screenplay in place of a more deserved Best Director win, is a film that beautifully embodies this idea of a unique artistic voice. Helmed by two extraordinary leads and a director that isn’t afraid to take her film in unexpected directions, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a quiet 18th-century romance whose emotional minimalism affords it astonishing intimacy.
Noémie Merlant plays Marianne, a painter sent to the secluded island estate of a French countess (Valeria Golino), who hires her to create a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to send off to suitors. As the countess explains to Marianne, Héloïse refuses to pose for a portrait, understandably distraught by the prospect of being sold off to be the wife of a strange man she has never met. Consequently, Marianne is instructed to befriend Héloïse as a companion, gather what artistic material she can from the time spent with her, and construct the painting in secret. The first hour of the film follows Marianne as she attempts this task, taking walks with her along the surrounding French beaches and stealing as many glances at Héloïse for inspiration as she can. Her glimpses are at first suspiciously reciprocated, then suggestively, blossoming their friendship over the course of the film into a profound and deeply passionate romance.
Céline Sciamma’s style is slow and deliberate, and it may take time to adjust to its Bressonian minimalism and leisurely rhythm. In my case, the crisp cinematography and articulate editing lured me into a kind of hypnotic daze, and I wasn’t consciously aware of how entranced I was by the film until it was almost over. There’s something beautiful and quietly exciting to be discovered within its precise naturalism. The bright, saturated colors of both women’s dresses pop with luscious contrast to the film’s spacious halls and soft, sandy beaches. Every frame could be a painting, as cliché and overused as that phrase has become, yet what’s truly impressive is how effortlessly Sciamma presents her visuals without drawing attention to them.
Lacking much in the way of a score, the film’s immersion into an 18th-century French seaside villa becomes even more palpable, the crashing waves and cool ocean breeze serving as an auditory backdrop to its tale of forbidden romance. The handful of diegetic musical selections that are present are set to some of the most astounding scenes of the year, ranging from a bizarre choral chant next to a bonfire to an intense classical piece staged against the film’s rapturous final shot.
Both Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel complete Portrait of a Lady on Fire with exquisitely restrained performances, conveying much of the hesitancy of their characters purely through their physicality and sly facial changes. Their performances are at once distant and expressive, making us lean in and ponder their cool faces for any trace of a thought or emotion. Their burgeoning romance quickly becomes intertwined with Marianne’s painting, their mutual affection announcing itself in the delicate brush strokes and considered hues of Héloïse’s portrait. The maturity in which their romance develops is a welcome relief, conspicuously lacking the melodramatic twists of guilt and jealousy that a lesser director might not hesitate to include in a lesbian period drama. While such a description may impart the impression that the film is devoid of drama, Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship is intriguing to watch precisely because hostility never enters the picture.
Period pieces often fall victim to predictability, their filmmakers mistakenly equating the rigidity of their setting with the necessity for rigidity in the narrative. Fortunately, Portrait of a Lady on Fire avoids such pitfalls, seamlessly blending its 18th-century scenery with modern feminist sensibilities and idiosyncratic ornamentations injected at key moments. These fiery flourishes express what the film’s two characters never explicitly put into words, an externalization of their restrained emotions through the kind of dazzling, vibrant imagery seldom found in a period drama. While I didn’t fall in love with Portrait of a Lady on Fire as immediately or easily as The Lighthouse or Parasite, it has quietly stayed with me in the weeks since I saw it. A film of hushed conversations and fervent passion alike, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most nuanced and thoughtful works to come out of Cannes this year.