Film Review | Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Stifled passions

Winner of both the ‘Queer Palm’ and Best Screenplay award at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival, Céline Sciamma’s film is a slow-burning but also lush and touching portrait of forbidden love

With narratives of LGBTIQ relationships becoming more and more prevalent on the world media stage, the drive towards historical reconsideration of some of our cultural expectations on that front is both inevitable and welcome – at least in the best of all possible worlds.

Among the promising selection forming part of this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival (which kicked off on Thursday evening), Céline Sciamma’s award-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes this subtler and more ambitious route, deftly imagining the emotional byways a budding gay couple would have to navigate in the 18th century – when even styling themselves as such would have been a feat beyond either language or thought.

Such as it is, the narrative of Sciamma’s two-hour slow-burner is simple. Even, on the face of it, threateningly thin. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter, is tasked with painting a wedding portrait for the equally young Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) by the girl’s mother (Valeria Golino). Arriving by boat to their remote residence on an island just outside of Brittany, Marianne is instructed to keep mum about her assignment, with her mother presenting the painter to Héloïse as a walking-and-talking companion, someone to help her pass the time prior to her transition to married life.

But while initially frosty, the relationship between the two young women slowly but surely begins to morph into something far deeper, and more intimate. Indirectly aided and abetted by the household maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) – whose own social transgressions the duo also help in occluding – Héloïse and Marianne become far more than just painter and painted, though the pecularity of Marianne’s assignment adds a layer of wistful distance to the experience.

Eschewing any histrionics, empty virtue signaling or recourse to cliche, Sciamma – who also penned the screenplay – carefully and methodically sketches out the outlines of a relationship that should not be forced as it is to exist only within the interstices of a society that can neither recognise nor welcome such an arrangement. But the girls are hardly depicted as hopeless victims, consumed and blinded by love and lust made futile by the mores of their times.

Telling silences, fleeting glances and the deferral of passion through the mediums of painting, literature and music – the use of Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Ovid’s Metamorphoses pay off substantial subtextual dividends – proposes the idea that in less socially and sexually egalitarian times, unconventional couplings still happened, just not in the way we would expect them to, perhaps.

The verdict

A masterful feat of controlled storytelling, Céline Sciamma’s deserving award-winner is an emotionally acute but entirely unsentimental portrait of barely-requited love, whose wistful atmosphere enfolds every beautifully photographed frame. Perfectly cast and adroitly communicating a pithy but complex emotional landscape, Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel also succeed in leading the concept to full bloom, whose stifled passion is perversely delicious to watch.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be screening at Pjazza Teatru Rjal on June 20 and Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier on June 22 at 9pm. The film is part of the Valletta Film Festival programme.