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November 02, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
Celine Sciamma - 2019

Anybody interested in placing Celine Sciamma's newest film in the context of her earlier work will be rewarded by Oswald Iten's video essay on the coming-of-age trilogy on Vimeo.

Among the changes are centering the film primarily on two women of unstated, but marriage age, in the 18th Century, in a remote part of Brittany. Marianne is an artist hired by a Countess to paint the portrait of daughter Heloise. The portrait is to be presented to a Milanese gentleman, a man originally to have been married to Heloise's older sister. The sister reported died by committing suicide prior to the wedding. Heloise had previously been living in a convent, the film taking place at a time when some family's of certain classes could only provide a dowry for one or two daughters, and placing any unwed daughter in the care of nuns. Heloise is uninterested in marriage, and has refused to pose for the previously hired artist.

Unlike the previous films by Sciamma, there is a sense of visual austerity, especially in the beginning. Much of the film takes place in the interior of the mansion which takes on the appearance of a prison with the undecorated gray cinderblock walls. During the time that the countess is in the house, Marianne has her meals with the house's only servant, Sophie. Brightness and color take over when the countess leaves temporarily. In addition to Marianne and Heloise acknowledging their mutual attraction, there is the sense that hierarchies have been abandoned with the inclusion of Sophie. This is most clearly indicated in a scene with the three all taking up different tasks of preparing a dinner that the three share. With this fleeting equality, there is more conversation, more physical contact, and a concurrent decrease in silence and solitude.

There are also moments of mysticism. Climbing up the dark stairs at night, Marianne believes she has seen Heloise in a hallway, dressed in white. The image of Heloise is only briefly illuminated before the hallway turns back to black. It's a ghostly image that the film returns to at the end. There is also a scene with Marianne, Heloise and Sophie attending a bonfire, a celebration of women. A group of women begin singing a round. The vocals begin with what sounds like electronic music, and for all I know, could well be electronically altered vocal work, the initial group of singers is joined in harmony by a second group, followed by a third. It's a repetition of sounds, that it both contemporary, yet musically is not to distant from the music of the time presented in the film. I am assuming this was composed by Sciamma's previous music collaborator, Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, whose own work is under the name of Para One.

Sciamma establishes her thematic concerns early. When Marianne takes a rowboat, rocked by waves, when she travels to Brittany. One particularly violent wave knocks the box with her canvasses into the water, the sailors and porters are indifferent to the loss of cargo. Marianne dives into the ocean to retrieve the canvasses. When Marianne is left at the beach, it is up to her to climb from the shore to the countess' mansion. Men make up a negligible physical presence in Portrait, but their influence is everywhere, from Heloise's obligation to be married, to how Marianne defines how she creates her art, and her need to sell her work under her father's name to be taken seriously.

This is no diatribe. Sciamma knows how to make her points without the need for underlining. There are moments of sly subversiveness at play throughout the film. Ultimately, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about how people communicate with each other through art.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 2, 2019 07:23 AM