Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Cannes review: a radiant vision of 18th-century female intimacy

Tim Robey
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant star in Céline Sciamma's Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) - Cannes Film Festival

Dir: Céline Sciamma. Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino. Cert tbc, 120 mins

There are dozens of portraits going on in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, including oils on canvas, crayon sketches and astonishingly radiant widescreen close-ups from the director of photography Claire Mathon (Stranger by the Lake), who, with this and Mati Diop’s Atlantique, has scored a double-impact coup like no one else at Cannes this year. The two films could hardly look more different.

But it’s especially significant that in Portrait — a film about the suppressed but lasting power of the female gaze — writer-director Céline Sciamma found a collaborator who could sympathetically frame her vision for cinema without, well, being a man.

The story is about a reluctant sitter for an undercover artist. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a noblewoman living on the coast in 18th-century Brittany, has refused to be painted by any visiting portraitists before, in part because the fruit of their work is going to be used to marry her off, delivered to snag a future husband like Holbein’s take on Anne of Cleves. She doesn’t want to be married, so she doesn’t want to be painted.

Only the stealthy intervention of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a talented artist who comes to Héloïse’s mansion in disguise as a lady’s maid, coaxes her into playing ball. But as their relationship evolves, enabling sneaky and growing intimacy right under the nose of Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), so, too, does the nature and purpose of the commission itself, which comes to seem like more of a goal in its own right, its eventual destination pesky and irrelevant.

Sciamma’s splendid, multi-layered conceit manages to carry equal weight as a love story and a manifesto of sorts for feminine art. Marianne explains that while female nudes are well within her gifts, she has never been allowed to paint the male anatomy. This has seriously impeded her career, hampering her command of the “major subjects” with which other (male) contemporaries have forged their reputations. But what’s taking place before her eyes — the blossoming of Héloïse’s body and soul as they passionately fall in love — becomes hardly anything less than the most major subject going. Sciamma’s determination is to chart it both on screen and in the paintings. She triumphs, in her own stealthy way, at both.

This 40-year-old writer-director has managed to arrive at Cannes with one of the year’s most anticipated projects, even though it’s her first time in competition: her exuberant coming-of-age tale Girlhood (2014), a sidebar smash hit, probably should have preceded it to a prize. Perhaps in homage to the corseted traditions of French costume drama, the film is deceptively stately at first, more clenched, more parsimonious with its dramatic development than the likes of, say, Lady Macbeth.

But when the romance catches fire – it’s the only idiom worth using – you may be unprepared for the liberated heat it gives off. Almost every scene in the second half builds sensationally on the last. Luàna Bajrami plays a vital supporting part as a young, pregnant maid called Sophie who contemplates Vera-Drake-like measures, with the compassionate help of both the other women.

And then this, too, becomes the subject for one of Marianne’s most inspired pieces, a recollected-in-tranquillity treatment that transforms Sophie’s act of self-determination, with men deprived of any say in it, into political art. The cameo for a gurgling, clutching baby in all this is resolutely not the one you may be expecting. And there’s a sequence around a campfire, inspiring the title work, with a shivery chorus that’s practically an incitement for the film to go all in.

Both the increasingly indispensable Haenel and the statuesque Merlant thrive as photographic subjects in themselves. When one asks the other to turn around at a pivotal moment, the shot in a doorway may put you fleetingly in mind of an old master, but it’s a face, in that moment in time, framed only in memory for the one doing the asking.

The gazing between these women is everything, almost every close-up a gaze reflected back at the viewer. Or in the case of the tear-filled, immaculate last shot, quite potentially a Palme d’Or clincher, it’s capturing an oblivious gaze off-screen, accessing a secret history of gazing only these two have ever known.