Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter, is rowed across a tempestuous sea towards rocky cliffs. A wooden box containing her plain canvasses falls overboard, and without hesitation, she gathers up her skirts and leaps into the water after them. Waves slap against her face as she struggles to retrieve it, but she clings on.
The opening of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of the most acclaimed films in competition in Cannes this year, seems to be a deliberate nod to Jane Campion’s The Piano. Another erotic period drama feature —that also features a creative woman whose wings have been clipped by a patriarchal society, jumping into a stormy sea as the source of her artistic expression sinks beneath the surface — and is the only film directed by a woman to be awarded the Palme d’Or. However, while Portrait pays homage to Campion, Sciamma’s vision of a woman expressing her sexual desire through art is entirely her own. Upending the period genre: there are no prominent male characters in this film. This Portrait is of women’s interior lives, their work as artists and of the central couple’s lesbian love for each other.
Marianne has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (120 BPM’s Adèle Haenel) for her betrothed, a Milanese nobleman she has never met. However, Héloïse is resisting her marriage, so Marianne is forced to pretend to be a hired companion by day and paint her in secret by night. At first, Héloïse is reticent and enigmatic; a brooding Gothic hero(ine) locked in a rambling mansion. To Marianne’s horror, on their first clifftop walk together she sprints towards the edge, only saving herself from oblivion at the very last second. Of course, it’s not long before she figures out the truth, but, to Marianne’s surprise, she consents and poses for the painting.
Héloïse proves challenging to capture, and Sciamma finds ample opportunity to explore the notion of the muse and the male gaze. Marianne’s first attempt is an empty echo; a docile, doe-eyed beauty designed for her husband’s approval. She sets it alight, and the roaring flames are a striking image of rebellion. Héloïse’s mother departs for a week, and the women are left alone with a young servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). In her absence, Marianne and Héloïse treat Sophie as their equal, and the trio forms their own private world of female connection and creativity. They eat and play cards together, class boundaries temporarily erased, and bond over discussions of love and desire. Sciamma continually reminds us that this is not a conventional period drama. The film is beautiful to look at and is shot with painterly precision, but the everyday interiors are stripped of opulence.
As the story unfolds, Marianne and Héloïse open up to each other, and their relationship begins to spark. Haenel brings a passion and gradually softening sharpness to Héloïse that makes her feel like a modern woman trapped in the wrong time, while Merlant is irresistible as Marianne, frustrated by the impossibility of confining her lover to a two-dimensional portrait. Like all great historical romances, Portrait is constructed upon the erotic tension between restraint and sensuality. Sciamma is a lesbian director, and as a result, their love scenes feel neither chaste nor titillating for straight male viewers.
While their relationship feels grounded, Sciamma includes intriguing touches of magic realism. Like Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, another of Cannes’ most praised films this year, Portrait isn’t shy about its influences. Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie read and discuss the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce, in which Orpheus might’ve been able to save his lost love from the underworld if only he could’ve resisted turning around to gaze at her. It’s an unsubtle but affecting allusion that casts a ghostly shadow on their affair.
A year ago on the red carpet in Cannes, 82 women, including Cate Blanchett, Ava DuVernay and Agnès Varda, protested against gender inequality in the film industry. This year a photograph of Varda was used as the festival’s official poster, but nothing has changed dramatically. Of the 21 films in competition this year, 4 were directed by women. Sciamma had already cemented her position as a talented, emotionally intuitive filmmaker with Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood, but, once again, a female director lost out on the top prize, though the film was awarded the Queer Palm. Portrait, from Marianne’s painting, to Sophie’s embroidery, to a group of women singing on a moonlit beach, defiantly emphasizes the importance of women’s art and will, that will undoubtedly be embraced into the canon of queer (and specifically lesbian) cinema. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma has delivered a masterful ode to love, desire, and creativity — that feels both fresh and modern — like a myth that’s as old as the hills.