Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a ravishing love story reminiscent of The Piano

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (M)

5 Stars

A boat with a young female passenger on board makes its way along a rocky coastline. When a piece of luggage falls overboard, she immediately jumps in to rescue it, petticoats, boots and all. It might have been end of story in late 18th-century France where this film is set, but, surprisingly, she can swim.

Noémie Merlant, left, and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Picture: Neon

Noémie Merlant, left, and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Picture: Neon

Artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is on her way to take up a new commission, painting the portrait of a young aristocrat who lives in a chateau on an island off Brittany. Her new client, the Countess (Valeria Golino), is a sweet and gentle woman who needs a likeness of her daughter to send to a prospective husband, a Milanese nobleman, so the wedding can go ahead.

It's not possible to watch this ravishing period piece without thinking of Jane Campion's The Piano. An arranged marriage in times past, stirring scenes on a beautiful, empty beach, a woman who expresses herself in the arts? But there are significant differences. This is a love story between two women, and as the filmmaker points out, they are equals.

Though writer-director Celine Sciamma doesn't make anything of it, it seems to me no accident that setting her story before the onset of the French Revolution, a liminal moment for freedom and equality, has significance too.

The Countess's daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel), who is just out of a convent, refuses to marry, and she won't cooperate for a portrait to be painted, because marriage will be the result. Apparently, her elder sister didn't wish to marry the Milanese nobleman either, and she took her life on a walk along the cliff edge.

With instructions from the Countess to become her daughter's companion, Marianne spends her days observing Heloise and taking mental notes as they go on walks together. She then paints by candlelight in the evening. With little else to do but walk, talk and read, a relationship begins to develop between the artist and the aristocrat. In particular, they love to read and reread the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, wondering about the motivations behind the tragic ending.

Heloise becomes aware of the deception and agrees to be painted anyway and during the sittings the two women spar, circle each other and eventually fall in love. The scenes as their relationship develops are exquisitely written by Sciamma, who won the best screenplay award at Cannes.

 Adèle Haenel in a scene from "Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Picture: Neon

Adèle Haenel in a scene from "Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Picture: Neon

After the sailors drop Marianne off at the castle, we see little of men and for much of the film they aren't in the frame at all. They are perhaps directing events from afar, like the Milanese nobleman. Or they could be operating at close quarters like the swain who has made the diminutive maid, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), pregnant.

The absence of men allows Portrait to concentrate exclusively on a world of women in which female sensibility and solidarity rule. It is expressed with intensity one evening when Marianne and Heloise join a group of local women gathering in the fields around a bonfire. It isn't really clear what the gathering is all about, except that when the women join in an a cappella chorus and sing in Latin, it becomes a moment of surreal beauty and a celebration of this unity.

The film looks beautiful and painterly, if rather stern and uncluttered. It doesn't tend to direct the audience emotions through the score with an emotive soundtrack but works to heighten instead the realism of the domestic world the women inhabit, with its crackling hearth and rustling, breathy silences. And is all the more powerful for it, more than making up for this minimalism with a few outstandingly dramatic musical moments like the ethereal a capella singing.

On another occasion we hear Summer from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. It is first heard when Marianne bumbles through it on a harpsichord, that doesn't do it anything like justice, but the scene lays the foundation for the amazing and intense concert finale.

This intelligent and sensuous film is special. An intimate and delicate study of how two people can fall in love. Marianne and Heloise who could be any two individuals who fall in love, and the world that their story builds will be a rich reward to those who are willing to enter.

This story Portrait of a Lady on Fire is ravishing first appeared on The Canberra Times.