• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Female-strong French film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is an understated wonder


directed by Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma's period piece captivates with its painterly touch and quiet details.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a quiet but passionate film that echoes the self-possession demonstrated by its two heroines, as well as the artistry of its director.

Celebrated French writer-director Céline Sciamma did not need #metoo to prompt her to create female-strong films. Her 2011 Tomboy was an award winner and 2014’s Girlhood met an enthusiastic welcome worldwide. That story of a gang of disenfranchised young black women asserting their identities in the working-class suburbs of Paris was gritty and sympathetic and showcased a significant yet under-represented minority. Now, Sciamma has turned her astute eye for character to a period piece.

In late 18th-century France, a self-contained young artist plunges into the sea to rescue a canvas while five passive men look on. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been summoned to a large, draughty home on a remote island, under the auspices of providing companionship for the household’s only daughter (Adèle Haenel, Deerskin). But her actual task is to surreptitiously paint the young woman’s portrait to secure an unwanted betrothal. As they slowly become acquainted, the women open up and feminist issues of autonomy (or lack of it) are interrogated.

Slowly is the operative word in this tale. The restraint demonstrated by all parties is particularly impressive. Sciamma shoots her leads in long-held close-ups, allowing their faces (less often their words) to convey the tacit emotion that miraculously manages to propel us through their story. Tiny details – a reproachful glance, a slowly unclenched hand – adhere to the cinematic maxim to “show, not tell”. If you added up all the lines of dialogue, Sciamma’s terse script might be only a few pages long.

In this way, the film feels more like a beautiful painting than a piece of theatre. Candlelit rooms glow like Rembrandts, and the costumes favour bold-coloured silks and gorgeous patterns, all the more striking against plain, whitewashed walls. Similarly, the two luminous actresses are understated in their slow circling of each other, as Marianne’s curious artist’s stare grows into deeper feelings.

Sciamma makes a brave and unusual choice to eschew all soundtrack throughout the film, barring two inevitably exceptionally powerful moments of a cappella singing, which induce goosebumps. A bigger statement, perhaps, is the paucity of men. Instead, Sciamma’s female gaze drifts over beautifully shot scenes of female bonding, celebrating (or at least acknowledging) natural biological processes in a way seldom seen.

But the languor with which the story unfolds is the most courageous move, and yet the film remains utterly captivating. The ultimate displays of passion may feel a little bloodless, but it’s hard not to be moved by the ending to this understated wonder.



Video: Madman Films

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.