Director: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
Walking home from seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I reached the crossing at a roundabout, pressed the small circular button and waited for the lights to change. Shimmying slightly through my glasses, the green man lit up clearly and I stepped onto the pedestrian crossing. A learner driver on a moped ran the red light and careered by me, missing me by about an inch. So not only did I see the best film I’ve seen since I started The Lost Highway Hotel this evening, but I also nearly died.
You caught the hyperbole in there, hopefully.
Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood from 2014 contains one truly miraculous moment, when teenage Marieme (Karidja Touré) watches and then joins her fellow girl gang members in lip syncing to “Diamond” by Rihanna, the four of them bathed in blue light. It’s a supreme example of one of Sciamma’s signatures; using music to create a moment that elevates and transcends her otherwise grounded eye, and using that moment to present an emotional truth.
There is no score in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Virtually all of its scenes take place against either the airy quietude of an 18th century country house or against a backdrop of buffeting winds and breaking waves. Yet still there are three scenes in the film that find Sciamma again using music to elevate and transcend.
The first of these takes place inside the house. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been surreptitiously hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel); a covert operation as Héloïse has past form vying with those who might capture her likeness. She is angry that she is soon to be wed in an arranged marriage. Marianna has been brought in under the guise of being a mere companion to her for clifftop walks. In this scene, as the iciness between them starts to thaw, Marianne attempts to ease her subject’s woes by playing her music on a harpsichord. She’s rusty, but she does her best to recall Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 2 in G Minor. She fumbles it (her fingers working suggestively beneath a sheet like hands beneath a dress), but the electricity of the moment for Héloïse – who has not heard music outside of a convent before – is a revelation. The keys exposed, two women sit close together and their eyes meet. The chemistry is palpable. Sciamma’s award-winning script deftly charts their transition from stony acquaintances to barely contained lovers.
The second occurs some days later, after the mother (Valeria Golino) has departed, altering the dynamic of the household. Marianne and Héloïse, along with house-servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), attend a roma bonfire where the women break out into a striking chorus of song and staccato rhythm that staggers on the soundtrack following the quietude and spit of the fire. In this scene of heightened intensity, Héloïse’s dress catches alight as she becomes the titular image; itself a grand metaphor for the burning desire shared by these two women. The local gypsy folk put her out. She faints, not out of shock from the flames, but from being overwhelmed by Marianne and their growing bond, as much the lust of would-be lovers as the solace and trust of friendship, something not at all familiar to either of them.
The third is the film’s staggering final shot, which I’ll not spoil here, but which brings all of the film together, and sees Adèle Haenel giving a career best turn (in a not-insubstantial career already). Indeed, the performances from both leads here are flawless. For her part, Noémie Merlant commands a frame like few others. The cinema hasn’t seen eyebrows this expressive since the halcyon days of Dan Hedaya. Her eyes dart and her long neck makes her head movements seem all the more pronounced. She is able to do much with small gestures or changes of her face.
Highlighting these three musical moments in a film (in part) about art, may give the misleading suggestion that the remainder isn’t worth comment, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. While it is true that Sciamma uses these musical moment to heighten her film, she achieves the same gasp-in-the-throat sense of emotional power over and over again. She wields the tools of her art to do this.
It is achieved in the ways her characters reveal and/or conceal themselves (a memorable clifftop moment is exceedingly playful in this regard). It is achieved through the cuts, where sharp scene transitions offer us bold contrast or even a comedic punchline. It’s achieved through lighting and the very form of some of her compositions, beautiful enough to take the breath away. It’s a rote cliché of film criticism to gush that “you could hang any shot in a museum!” but it is genuinely the case here. Sciamma, in collaboration with her DP Claire Mathon, has crafted a film of deft rigor and precision to rival the formal beauty of even Barry Lyndon.
But where Kubrick tended to seem stifled by the clinical nature of his eye, Sciamma still paints with life and light. Portrait never feels too measured or antiseptic. It is a mannered piece of work, to be sure, reflecting the chaste times and circumstances of its characters, but it pops and sparks, evoking the flush of a heart in full fire. It’s there in the wind in the grass and the roils of the sea, in the faces of these women.
It is interesting to compare the approach to lust and lovemaking here to that of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour – the other highly-praised epic of lesbian love to come out of France this last decade. Where Kechiche’s male gaze ogles, proves problematic, Sciamma is so enamored by her lovers as to allow them some portion of privacy. Whatever happens between them in the bedroom is too intimate even for us, and that respect feels like the right choice. In this film, every scene between them is intimate.
I know for a fact that the green man on that crossing had lit up, glowing in the dark and the haze of the February drizzle. I remember it clearly. I was in the right to think it was safe for me to cross and this poor learner was in the wrong. But there’s the tiniest chance I could have been more aware of my surroundings (though I was not listening to music or otherwise impaired). The chance comes from how astonishingly preoccupied I was with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, swirling still in my senses as I walked home from the venue.
This film overwhelmed and enveloped me and I don’t want that feeling to go away. Guess I’ll need a minder for the next however long. And even then, I’ll want to see it again.