Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
Original title: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
France, 2019. Lilies Films, Arte France Cinema, Hold Up Films, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee, Canal+, Ciné+, ARTE, Cinécap 2, La Région Île-de-France. Screenplay by Céline Sciamma. Cinematography by Claire Mathon. Produced by Bénédicte Couvreur. Music by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, Arthur Simonini. Production Design by Thomas Grézaud. Costume Design by Dorothee Guiraud. Film Editing by Julien Lacheray. Cannes Film Festival 2019. European Film Awards 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
Late in the eighteenth century, women are pursuing the art of painting under the strictures of the conventions of the time, allowed to practice but limited as to their subjects (like painting male figures, for instance). In a classroom being taught by the skilled and celebrated Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a student asks her about a haunting painting hanging in her studio and wonders if it has a story behind it, and Marianne answers in the affirmative. This takes the teacher back in her mind to the few months she spent on an isolated island where she was hired to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who was promised in marriage to a Milanese nobleman. Her mother (an exquisite Valeria Golino), has asked Marianne a strange request, to spend time with Heloise as her companion and paint her secretly at night; her elder daughter committed suicide before being sent off as the unknown gentleman’s bride and she worries that Heloise, in her grief, will do the same. The intensity of the two women’s friendship that develops leads to passion as Marianne’s close observations of this darkly serious but not unreasonable young woman have her fall in love with her both on the canvas and in person. Celine Sciamma’s elegant period piece is a visually stunning effort whose painterly images are the direct expression of her character’s emotions, it recalls Rohmer’s Marquise of O in its marrying sumptuous iconography with the deeply felt but not always verbally expressed longings of its players. Haenel is particularly effective as the object of Marianne’s desire, Sciamma’s careful closeups reveal something mysterious and enchanting in every twitch of her bright eyes or mischievous mouth. The magic of the film’s daring and expressive moments of surrealism (like Marianne having visions of Heloise before painting her) and spontaneity (like the women on the beach breaking out into a chorus of song) bring vitality and joy to a plot that takes very seriously its intent to show women living within the boundaries of what is permitted in their world; there’s more comedy in the narrative’s abortion strand than there is misery, and such elements result in a film that never feels like a lecture. Instead, what you have is a precisely designed chamber piece that has a perfect blend of deceptively simple drama and indulgent aestheticism.