In recent years, Celine Sciamma has struggled to justify her position as a reliable director in French cinema. Tomboy though noble in its intentions appeared to be missing something to help it stand out and Girlhood was a dull attempt at attempting to identify with an underclass.
With her latest work, the winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she atones for her past errors with a beautiful and heartfelt period drama depicting the relationship between two young women in 18th century France.
Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is an artist hired to travel to an island occupied by a young woman Heloise (Adele Haenel) who upon leaving the convent is resigned to marriage. Prior to the wedding, Marianne is asked by the mother (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of the bride-to-be, but with a catch; she must keep secret about her assignment due to her ardent refusals to sit for one previously.
Marianne proceeds to observe her subject, studying her whilst they engage in walks around the island but over time, the reason for her appearance is revealed although it is forgiven and leads to Heloise unusually agreeing to sit for the artist. This eventually leads to the two beginning a discreet affair despite the inevitability of what the future holds.
There are times when Sciamma expertly directs moments to express the relationship between the two women. In the first scene that Haenel appears in, she is covered by gown, her movements studied by the artist whose motives initially have to remain discreet. Before long, she runs towards a cliff edge, suggesting an attempted suicide, pursed by a desperate Marianne only to stop at the last moment and turn around declaring she had no desire to do what it is implied her sister had done in events only discussed prior.
Sciamma presents her observations by having Marianne narrate how the cartilage of an ear should be carefully noticed in a scene which shows via close-up Heloise walking up stairs followed by the artist. Precision is key in an artist’s work and the film is strongest when it gives an insight into analysing the challenges of the assignment, often punctuated by scenes showing Marianne doing the painting from memory; the painting shots expressing the detail that goes into it.
At times, the film risks looking like an excuse to just stare at Haenel’s face as she walks and sits, but it is really a beautiful and well-directed method of making the viewer gain a clear understanding into the artist’s intentions, an art lesson of some sort.
Both Merlant and Haenel suit each other’s parts and display a solid chemistry with a relationship that begins as professional and mysterious followed by friendly and respectful developing into love. The first sign that the two form a connection is when Marianne introduces Heloise to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, describing what the piece represents whilst learning of her pessimism to the forthcoming life in Italy that awaits her.
This is referenced in the film’s final moments which play as a showcase for the talents of Haenel, a culmination of the journey she has been on that leads up to the moment of bravura acting, filmed in an uninterrupted take that will go some way to establishing Haenel as one of Europe’s most entertaining actors.
The love story element is built upon, occurring later than assumed but done at the right pace because it gives us time to focus on the characterisations and story before that storyline can arrive. As viewers, we suspect that given the social setting, this is not going to end the way we desire it to, making the subsequent third act at times heart-wrenching to see. A particular scene on a beach provides us with the pained expression of reality, detailing how circumstance can be so cruel in the face of love.
With two lead actresses at the top of their game and boosted by the often voyeuristic direction of Sciamma, this is a moving yet solidly-crafted and confident examination of society, art and love that entertains from beginning to end. Films that warrant repeat viewings are rare as one can see from a first view that it won’t increase in enjoyment but this indeed has the capability of achieving that as the year progresses. It is also a lesson that no matter how disappointing a director does with one film, it does not mean their next film will be the same.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***