You don’t need any prior knowledge in order to be wowed by Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a visually ravishing period drama that premiered Sunday in Cannes.
Walk in blind and take in all that this piercingly intelligent treatise on art, agency and queer love in the 18th century has to offer. Go in with a touch more context, however, and this already self-reflexive work takes on an entirely new dimension.
The story of a brief but passionate affair between a portrait artist and her subject, the film sets its sight on the gaze. Laced with bittersweet romanticism, the strong prize contender is fundamentally about the act of looking, of watching somebody else with intense yearning and seeing them stare back at you.
We follow talented artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) from Paris to Brittany, where she is commissioned to paint the pre-wedding portrait of a young noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). But the painting must be done in secret, as the bride-to-be refuses to sit for it in protest of her unwanted marriage. So Marianne accompanies her unknown subject as a companion, taking long cliff-side walks while she studies her in full — and little does she know that Héloïse has been staring right back at her.
While the women eventually act on their shared desire for one another, the focus is not wholly on their coupling, which comes into fruition surprisingly late into the story. Instead, the tale tracks the creation of art itself and the collaborative process it entails.
Héloïse learns of the portrait, and when she sees the work that’s been done, she chastises the young painter — not for doing the work in secret, but for doing work to please other (read: male) sensibilities rather than her own. As if Sciamma had taken Laura Mulvey’s feminist film theory and used it to deconstruct the costume drama (which seems to be exactly the case!), the narrative then resets. Now the two women will collaborate on a new portrait, one done in the pursuit of authentically feminine (and feminist, though they’re a few centuries too early to have the right words for that) art.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a film in conversation with itself and with the greater world — a movie made by a female director and a 99% female cast about the need to create authentically representative art that leads the way by doing exactly that.
Films like “Carol,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “The Handmaiden” have been the talk of the festival in recent Cannes vintages, but all have come from male directors and have had predominantly straight casts. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” changes that up while offering one meta-textual twist: not only are director Sciamma and lead actress Haenel queer artists, they’re also a former couple.
While it’s normally best to consider a piece of art separate from its creators’ personal lives, this film’s deep self-awareness seems to invite the comparison. As with Spaniards and Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” most who see Sciamma’s film in its native country will come in a step ahead of the curve — Haenel did famously come out of the closet onstage at the Césars, professing her love for Sciamma.
They may no longer be together, but with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — the story of a bittersweet romance that enriches the lives of both partners even after it ends — Sciamma returns the affection.