Last year’s lesbian romance from Céline Sciamma is an instant classic

How does one write about a near-perfect film? Since I first viewed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in December, I’ve been enraptured by Céline Sciamma’s creation. I took myself to see it on Valentine’s Day weekend at AFS Cinema and then saw it again with friends — my last screening in a theater — at the Violet Crown in mid-March. I sat next to a random woman who coughed (from allergies, she swore) and thought, I hope I don’t catch coronavirus because I wanted to see this beautiful French romance for a third time.

Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Water Lilies) wrote and directed the quiet 18th Century-set drama about a couple of women falling in love in an isolated estate off the Brittany coast. Artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been hired by the mother of sheltered Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to paint a wedding portrait of her daughter for an Italian fiance. Since Héloïse objected to the work of the last painter, Marianne has to observe the young woman during walks, as a companion, and paint in secret.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is quiet, which makes the dialogue that is spoken that much more poignant. There is little narration, and the director didn’t want to include any scoring or incidental music that the characters wouldn’t themselves hear. Imagery is important in the film as Claire Mathon’s impeccable cinematography stuns the viewer and Marianne composes a portrait, within the conventions of the period, of this woman with whom she’s started to fall in love.

Specific visuals from Portrait of a Lady on Fire remain embedded in my mind: the triptych of the women in the kitchen, the ghostly vision of Héloïse that appears to Marianne in the dark recesses of the house, and the baby comforting maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) as she receives an abortion. The desire between Héloïse and Marianne shows through their intense glances at each other, even when one is the subject and the other the painter.

Sciamma captures the freedom the trio revel in when Héloïse’s mother leaves for a short period of time (“equality is a pleasant feeling”), contrasting the societal limitations Héloïse is bound by to the worlds unmarried Marianne has been able to explore on her own as an artist. The Presto movement from ‘Summer’ in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons comes to represent the liberation and love the two felt in this brief season, and the viewer is left with an indelible portrait of their romance and the impact it made on their lives.

The Criterion Collection BluRay package includes:

  • 4K digital master with a fully digital, surround soundtrack
  • cover art by artist Hélène Delmaire, who painted the art in the film
  • a 2019 interview with Delmaire about her training and the preparation that went into creating an 18th Century style painting
  • conversation between director Sciamma and critic Dana Stevens about the the filmmaker’s research into the project, writing the film with a specific actress (Adèle Haenel) in mind, the music decisions, and the abortion scene, which Sciamma acknowledges “is a really rare scene in cinema.”
  • 2020 interviews with actresses Haenel and Merlant, who speak of their casting, and how a connection was built during filming. Merlant talks about studying a painter’s gaze for her character and both actresses praise the intimacy of the sex scene.
  • a 2019 interview at Cannes with award-winning cinematographer Claire Mathon. She talks about the artistic influences (like Corot) on the lighting of the film, filming in Brittany, interior lighting techniques used, how fire and candle flame affected lighting decisions. Mathon also explains how they chose to film on digital.
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