The year is 1770. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the daughter of a renowned painter and a painter herself travels to an island off the coast of Brittany, tasked with painting the portrait of a noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse has recently left the convent where she led a life of seclusion because of a family tragedy: Her sister has met a tragic end on the verge of marrying a Milanese gentleman. Her mother (Valeria Golino) is now pushing her to the altar to marry him instead and wishes to send a likeness of her daughter to the suitor. Héloïse who strongly objects to the arrangement refuses to pose, attempting to derail the plan, as she had already managed to with the previous painter.
With only five films under her belt as director (but more as screenwriter) thirty-nine year-old Céline Sciamma should be making her way into the rarefied club of Essential French Filmmakers. She became known as director in 2007 with her film “La Naissance des Pieuvres,” a film that also starred Adèle Haenel. Then followed a couple of other feature films. Before being a filmmaker, Sciamma was known as a screenwriter who wrote among other screenplays, that of “My life as a Zucchini” (2016), a highly-successful animated film that went on to win multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. “Zucchini” is regarded by the CNC head Xavier Lardoux (CNC, Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée, the film funding arm of France’s Culture Ministry), as the ideal film, that is, one that was made on a low budget but became a major box office success in France.
In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” in the French original), Noémie Merlant plays a self-confident, combative, even and determined Marianne. In order to bring Héloïse around to pose for the portrait, she takes up a suggestion by Héloïse’s mother and playacts being her new friend so that she can closely watch her reluctant model when the two are together to paint her from memory, secretly, in the evening. The strategy works, the two young women become close and Marianne’s work progresses. The countess and her daughter live a secluded life but when Héloïse and Marianne are together, they evoke music and sex. The former has no idea what either one is like, and the second is happy to oblige with explanations, creating desire and of power plays between the two young women.
This deeply moving film has much going for it, particularly a riveting performance by Noémie Merlant who is pitch-perfect in the character’s confrontation of the period’s conventions and the restrictions placed on women. Like so for the film’s DP, Claire Mathon, ( who also worked on Mati Diop’s “Atlantique,” another film in the running for a Palme d’or this year.) Her work on “Portrait” is tremendous, simple and complex at the same time, playful and easy to understand, and brimming with radiant, painful beauty. This has been one of my favorite films this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Noémie Merlant, as Marianne, took home a Best Acting prize.
Sciamma counts David Lynch as the filmmaker who’s influenced her the most, with “Mulholland Drive” as her favorite film. Funny anecdote: she once interviewed Kim Kardashian. In the course of the interview, they both realized they had been big Michael Jackson fans in their childhood, even had the same posters on their walls. Sciamma commented that she had more in common with Kim Kardashian than she thought. Until Kardashian mentioned that her thirteenth birthday party had been held at Neverland, Michael Jackson’s California ranch.