Portrait of a Lady on Fire (5 stars)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Cannes 2019: Women are front and centre of this scintillating and sensual period piece from Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma follows the gorgeous Girlhood with a queer period drama set in 18th century Brittany that portrays a scintillating slow-burn romance between two women in a time when their lives were determined by social standing and marriage. The film takes place in an almost hermetically sealed world where only women seem to exist, and stars Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant as lovers Héloïse and Marianne. They are joined by maid Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami, with Valeria Golino as La Comtesse. Marianne has been employed to secretly paint Héloïse's portrait, and studies her in meticulous detail.

When La Comtesse goes on a trip, the three remaining women strike up a nurturing bond, as Sophie is helped through the abortion of an unwanted child. It's these scenes that bring to mind the themes and interactions of Marilyn French's seminal feminist novel, The Women's Room. Though the time periods differ, the idea that these trapped women take great comfort from each other's company is beautifully depicted. There's pleasure, too, in the graceful handling of the women's flirtation and its ultimate consummation, with tender, teasing sex scenes and windswept walks on the beach.

In a film shot through with affection and a sharp intellectual edge, Sciamma expresses what freedom means to each of her characters through the things they desire most. Candlelit interiors sizzle with suggestion, while outdoor excursions alternate between the oppressive – with giant cliff faces hemming the women in – and the incendiary – as passions break loose. At one point, the lovers walk furtively round an open fire, and a group of women erupt into song. It's an explosively wild, transporting and sexy scene that truly sets the film alight.

Screening as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

  • 5 stars
  • 2019
  • France
  • Directed by: Céline Sciamma
  • Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Héloïse (Haenel) and Marianne (Merlant) are lovers in 18th century Brittany, who negotiate their romance after La Comtesse (Golino) leaves them with the maid Sophie (Bajrami). Scintillating, slow-burn period drama with affection and a sharp edge, gracefully handling the women’s flirtation and passion and beautifully…

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