Sexual self-discovery is at the rendez-vous in Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of A Lady on Fire,” a sumptuously made 121 minute triumph which simmers with slow-burn until it breaks your heart ten-fold. It is, as we speak, the leading contender to win the Palme D’or next weekend in what has been a Cannes filled with good movies, but not great ones.
This is surely one of the peaks of entirely female-led cinema that we’ve seen in recent years, if ever. It’s mind-boggling how it is still such a novelty to watch women direct women, so much so that the film captures moments of incredible simplicity and yet they feel so fresh because these feelings have rarely, if ever, been dealt with such honesty before.
A far cry from Sciamma’s handheld work in “Girlhood,” her last film, this painterly film is set in Brittany circa 1770. Marianne (incendiary work from Noémie Merlant) is teaching a painting class, but all of a sudden tears up when a student points to a portrait of a lady on fire that is standing in the back of the room. The rest of the film is comprised of flashbacks explaining Marianne’s connection with the painting.
The story behind the painting is that a few years earlier, Marianne was tasked to go to the home of a wealthy family and, at the request of a countess (Valeria Golino), paint a wedding portrait for her daughter Héloïse (emotional powerhouse Adèle Haenel) and the unknown Italian man who will marry her. This all follows in the tradition of Marianne’s father having painted the portrait of the countess back in the day as well. Problem is there have been other painters at the estate and Héloïse has shown them the door—she refuses to be painted because she doesn’t want to marry the Italian.
And so, Marianne’s task is to befriend Héloïse as a companion on her walks and study her features and movements to privately paint the portrait. Surprisingly, a decent-enough portrait is created but Marianne is unsatisfied; she needs more time, much to the Countess’ chagrin, who is about to go out of town for the next five days. They make a deal: the countess tells her it needs to be completed by the time she comes back.
This is an incredibly sexy movie. Sciamma’s visual and aural language is filled with eroticism, but, bear in mind, the less you know about “Portrait of A Lady on Fire” the better. What could have been full-fledged voyeurism turns into a total work of art in the hands of Sciamma. In fact, only a female director could have delivered such a towering work, one filled with the opposite of voyeurism: observance.
The movie isn’t perfect (I could have done without side character Sophie the maid (Luana Bajrami) needing an abortion), but, scene-by-scene, the clarity of Sciamma’s vision is damn-near impressive. It’s all aided by its two leads: Golino, the dark-haired brooding artist tormented by a vacant soul until she finds the cure, and Haenel in a raw, intimate and provocative performance that concludes to the sounds of Vivaldi's “Four Seasons.” [A-]