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CÉLINE SCIAMMA: PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE/PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU (2019) - NYFF

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ADÈLE HAENEL AND NOÉMIE MERLANT IN PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE


A lesbian romance set in the 18th century

After a series of films with lesbian or gender issue hints Céline Sciama has made a full-on lesbian one. It’s a beautiful film, and being from Sciama, original and assured, though I found its pulse rate lower than that of her previous ones, including the lively gay coming of agreer she cowrote with André Téchiné, Being Seventeen. All this is at one remove, since it’s set in the eighteenth century. It’s even arguably removed from that period a bit as well, since the action transpires at a remote location, near rocks and the sea, with few major indicators of eighteenth-century life other than gowns and bodices and candles. (Ladies smoke clay pipes too.) Till the end no men are seen, and only four women. Action is focused on a mother, who bookends the action, and the main actors, two young women, and a servant girl named Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) who is helped and treated as a friend when she needs an abortion.

The other subject besides love clearly is feminism, the liberation of women. All this fuss over making a painting without the subject knowing is due to an arranged marriage. Héloise (Adèle Haenel) has been brought from a convent to be a bride to replace her sister, who has thrown herself on the rocks, apparently, to escape marrying a Milanese gentleman. Their mother, a countess, though that's not mentioned, and to me she didn't seem much like a countess (Valeria Golino), is Milanese, and is arranging this. She and the painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), whose arrival dramatically opens the film, exchange a few words of Italian when they meet.

A previous painter, a man, didn’t succeed because Heloise wouldn’t let him paint her face (or see it?), and that was because she was against the marriage. We are to assume that the Milanese gentleman requires that he see the face of this new young lady he is now supposed to wed. Natural enough. This is where the difference of the times comes home to us: images of people aren’t accessible at the click of a lens or a laptop, and must be provided by a slow, laborious, and as we see, sometimes life-changing as well as life-enhancing process.

At first the story is amused with this simple immediate project: how to get the face on canvas of an elusive subject without being found out. There is drama about the two women going out for a walk in the blustery seaside place, Héloise, the bride-to-be, walking ahead in a great hood so she’s mysterious. However, all this seemed to me pretty far-fetched.

The artist is a young woman this time, and she is a graceful amazon. Arriving in a small boat, she jumps in the rough sea to rescue her big box of canvases that has tumbled in the water. Then she carried a ton of stuff up from the rocks to the dwelling place of the lady she’s going to work for. How many people could do this?

Héloise seems remarkable too, because she is someone who thinks convent life liberating. But there is something: it’s an place away from the male domination of marriage. (Haenel has made a career out of playing obstreperous, spirited women.) But Heloise, it turns out, has limited experience of what she counts as one of her main delights, music. She attends masses to enjoy the harmonies, played on the organ - but has never heard the other instruments. So when Marianne taps out the theme of the Presto from "Summer" in Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons" for Heloise on a harpsichord, it's momentous. . This seemingly rough gesture sets up a final scene where Marianne for the last time, later on, glimpses her, alone in a concert hall balcony, listening to that same music played by a full-throated orchestra, and the camera watches as Héloise runs through a whole gamut of emotions with the camera fixed on her face, tears eventually streaming down, concentrating all the emotion of the two women's brief but intense love affair in a triumphantly prepared moment.

Before that final moment, we get to watch as the two young women have that brief intense affair, full-on bed lovemaking included. This is a sequence of events that gradually creeps up on us. Neither the artist nor Héloise is a women who is shy or reserved, but it takes a while for them to realize what they feel and recognize that they want to act upon their feelings.

The artist reveals to Héloise that she’s been punk’d, that is, painted without her knowing, but simultaneously recognizes that she’s not satisfied with the portrait she's made - not now, when she's so intimately acquainted with the subject. By then they’re already on such good terms that the violation of privacy, or of the exclusion, doesn’t really quite matter any more. Eventually Héloise may also be coming to accept the arranged marriage. Marianne has suggested to her it will have some moments of happiness, at least. What choice is there, after all?

The artist destroys the face part of her initial portrait of Héloise, to do it over - and of course prolong their time together. (It's like Penelope unraveling her weaving or Seherezade needing another night to finish her tale.) A lot is said here about how knowing a person better enables a painter to do a better likeness. I am not sure any of this is valid, or related to actual painting, but I don’t know if that matters to Sciamma. One of the major weaknesses of this arresting film is that it seems to exist in a fantasy world of its own most of the way. For sure, redoing a portrait may enable you to get it better the second time. Or not. But is’t this mainly just a poetic visualization of the intimate process of falling in love? This realm of mythology and symbolism delights many, but is removed from the freshness and specificity Sciamma has achieved in previous films. It's just pretty, very, very pretty, elegant stuff.

It’s also in its way of course a celebration of young love, first love, with the understanding that it’s not going to last. It is a memorable episode, the love of a lifetime, and there is a scene when the two women talk about moments in their affair that they will especially remember.

There is some prolonged messaging by this movie about how different a world was before mechanical reproduction and before photography, and how people may have carried images of other people differently in their heads. That I don't find this film as satisfying as others have doesn't mean it doesn't provide food for thought.

Along with that a love affair is something that we carry in our heads, poetry of experience that is comfort in years to come. First young love flourishes thrives in youth, then it’s gone, but remembered. "Quant’è bella giovanezza, che si fuge tuttavia." There seems a play in French perhaps on the similarity and rhyme of "en feu" (on fire) and "en fleur" (in flower), deliberately confusing the prime vigor of youth with excitement, flaming emotion.

This film has delighted the festival (Cannes) public and gone on to delight a larger viewing public than any of Céline Sciama’s previous works. And yet is seems, beautiful as it is, a little bloodless to me, not as compelling as the earlier ones, and a bit of a dead end, so it’s hard to imagine where she goes from here, if following from it. On the other hand, she has done something quite different each time, and it's always been good, so I have no worries about the future of Céline Sciamma on the cinematic horizon.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 120 mins., debuted at Cannes 2019 and has been celebrated at an unusual number of international festivals, more than 40, including Toronto and New York, released Sept. 2019 in France and Feb. 14, 2020 in the US. Screened for this review at Village East Cinema, NY, Feb. 26, 2020. AlloCiné press rating 4.0 (80%). Metascore a more extravagant 95%.

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