Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite may have been a worthy winner of Cannes’ top award this year, but the flames stoked by Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire won’t go out in a hurry. It took home Cannes’ Queer Palme and the Best Screenplay award, when she really could (and should) have been the first woman director to win the Palme d’Or since Jane Campion shared it for The Piano in 1993.
The French director previously explored the evolving facets of gender expression and self-discovery in her socio-realist Tomboy and Girlhood, and here transposes these themes into an intoxicating period drama. The narrative of her fourth feature is familiar, but the immaculate execution reveals it to be an emotionally refined and intimate evocation of deep human connection.
Set on a remote island in Brittany circa 1770, Noémie Merlant stars as a painter who’s hired to paint a wedding portrait in secret, as Adèle Haenel’s reluctant bride-to-be refuses to pose. Both Merlant and Haenel are perfectly cast and ignite the screen with restrained yet deeply soulful performances. They are matched by Sciamma’s complete tonal control. There is no emotional panhandling throughout, and it’s hard to recall a film so beautifully evocative, with every brushstroke and fire crackle leaving an indelible mark thanks to Claire Mathon’s painterly and dreamlike cinematography. It’s truly a masterpiece of visual storytelling, with the carefully echoed image of veils, which symbolically invoke shackling patriarchal conventions as well as unspoken desire, proving to be particularly effective. Sciamma also cloaks the drama in a sensual veil of tension with chilling glimmers of gothic horror; these beautifully eerie moments lead to an understated payoff linked to the recounted myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a literary parallel which poignantly complements the film’s musings on regret and remembrance. It makes for a transfixing watch up until the final scene, whose throat-choking impact rivals the final shot of Luca Guadagnino‘s Call Me By Your Name, another film which wonderfully captured the emotional hurricane of profound love. It’s truly one of the most beautiful and captivating films of 2019.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Directed by Celine Sciamma (France, 2019), with Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel. Starts Oct 31.
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