(Winner of the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay Prize to Celine Sciamma at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival) Written and directed by Celine Sciamma, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is the story of an 18th Century painter who arrives to create a portrait for a woman that is to be wedded to a man only for the painter and woman to have a taboo affair. The film is a period drama between two women who fall for each other in an isolated seaside estate as they deal with their feelings for one another and what they must not do. Starring Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, and Valeria Golino. Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is a majestic and rapturous film from Celine Sciamma.
Set towards the end of the 18th Century, the film revolves around a painter who is taken to a remote island in France to paint a portrait of a woman that is to be wedded only for the two to embark on a secretive relationship. It’s a film with a simple premise as it plays into the ideas of art and temptation as well as this sense of longing and sisterhood in a world where men often is at the control of fates. Celine Sciamma’s screenplay opens with the painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) at an art school teaching her students as she talks about one of her famed paintings where the film’s title refers to her time at the island of Brittany where she’s asked to paint a portrait for a countess (Valeria Golino) whose daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel) is to be married to nobleman from Milan. Upon her arrival to the island, Marianne notices that Heloise is very resistant to marrying a man she doesn’t know as there’s a lot of revelations into why this marriage has been arranged and Marianne is another of a series of painters to come in and try to paint a portrait of Heloise. Marianne understands what happened in those many attempts while understanding Heloise’s own feelings about being painted and what she wants.
Sciamma’s direction is definitely entrancing as it play into this idea of what art is and what it means for someone including the person that is to be painted. Shot on location at Saint-Pierre-Quiberon at the island of Brittany as well as locations in the La Chapelle-Gauthier at Seine-et-Marne, Sciamma makes the locations a character in the film as it plays into this world of isolation as the island is remote while the rare moment of Marianne and Heloise going out of the chateau with the house maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) where they would encounter a group of women at a bonfire. It is in that moment where Marianne would get the idea for her famed painting as the film goes into great detail into Marianne’s methods and how she sketches things and then turn it into a painting. The usage of close-ups into the way Marianne paints show Sciamma’s approach to who Marianne is as an artist that includes creating a small sketch of Heloise as the two begin their affair. Sciamma’s direction also has this unique approach to framing and compositions through the wide and medium shots as if she’s creating a painting on her own in where the characters are as well as a certain piece of furniture.
There are also these amazing shots during scenes in the beach involving Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie as they’re trying to find plants as it relates to a subplot of Sophie learning that she’s pregnant as it is a moment in the film that has these women bonding. Sciamma also showcases some straightforward compositions in the way she positions the camera to get coverage of her actors without doing a lot of movement in some scenes as well as maintain this air of intrigue into what is not being shown. Sciamma also creates this air of tension about the final painting of Heloise’s portrait as a lot of the painting is done by Helene Delmaire who also did all of the other paintings in the film as it says a lot of what Marianne is feeling. Even towards the end as it play into the inevitable but also an aftermath that returns to the film’s opening scene and what would follow as it relates to the ways of the world then and how its final shot of the film just says so much about the cruelty of the world. Overall, Sciamma crafts a ravishing and intoxicating film about a painter who falls for her subject in a woman who is reluctant to become a portrait for a man she doesn’t want to marry.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon does incredible work with the film’s lush and colorful cinematography as it is a highlight of the film in terms of the attention to detail of the landscapes with the way the beaches look as well as the cliffs along with the usage of candle lights for the interior scenes at night. Editor Julien Lacheray does brilliant work with the editing where it has a sense of rhythm to play into the drama as well as bits of humor while often knowing when to let a shot linger as it doesn’t aim for anything stylish. Production designer Thomas Grezaud does amazing work with the look of the chateau’s interiors as well as the look of the living room with its fireplace and the studio where Marianne creates Heloise’s portrait. Costume designer Dorothee Guiraud does excellent work with the costumes in the dresses from the dark-red dress that Marianne wears, the dark-blue/black dresses of Heloise and the countess wears, and the green dress that Heloise wears for her portrait.
Special effects supervisor Benoit Talenton, with visual effects supervisors Alain Carsoux and Jeremie Leroux, does terrific work with a few of the film’s special effects as it relates to an image that Marianne would see as it foreshadows the reality of what she has to deal with. The sound work of Julien Sicart, Valerie Deloof, and Daniel Sobrino is superb in capturing the atmosphere of the locations as well as the sound of heels walking on wooden floors as it adds to the film’s quiet yet hypnotic tone. The film’s music by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simoni is fantastic as it only features one score piece during the bonfire scene of a group of women sing and clap as it is this haunting music piece that adds to the dramatic tension while the only other music piece in the film are variations of Summer from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that appears twice.
The film’s casting by Christel Baras is wonderful as it feature some notable small appearances from Armande Boulanger as a student of Marianne in the film’s opening scene, Guy Delamarche as an art gallery enthusiast late in the film, and Clement Bouyssou as Heloise’s future husband late in the film. Valeria Golino is brilliant as the Countess as Heloise’s mother who hires Marianne for the job while being someone who understands her daughter’s reluctance but also is hopeful that her daughter will find happiness despite the tragedy they’ve both endured. Luana Bajrami is incredible as the housemaid Sophie as a young woman who becomes pregnant as she becomes this figure that helps Marianne and Heloise bond while assisting the former with the portrait as she proves to be a competent ally for both women.
Finally, there’s the duo of Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel in phenomenal performances in their respective roles as Marianne and Heloise. Merlant brings a realism to a woman that has been in society while also understands what it takes to create great art as she feels challenged by Heloise as well as entranced by her while coping with what is inevitable. Haenel’s performance is restrained in her approach to melodrama as a woman that is expressing her anger and sadness in the role she is to play yet Haenel also provides this aura that adds to her complexity as a woman that is afraid to reveal her true identity. Merlant and Haenel together are just exquisite to watch in the way they play off each other and then express their own longing for one another as they are a massive highlight to the film.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is a magnificent film from Celine Sciamma. Featuring a phenomenal ensemble cast, ravishing visuals, a gripping and entrancing screenplay, incredible art direction and paintings, and a haunting music soundtrack piece. The film is definitely an evocative and wondrous film that explore a woman tasked to create a portrait of a woman that doesn’t want to marry as it play into many taboos but also a need to create art, sisterhood, and companionship in a world that refuses to change its way. In the end, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is an outstanding film from Celine Sciamma.
Celine Sciamma Films: (Water Lillies) – (Pauline (2010 film)) - (Tomboy (2011 film)) – Girlhood - (Petite Maman)
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