Runtime: 121 minutes
Director/Writer: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Adèle Haenel, Noémie Merlant
By Jenni Holtz
“It’s done,” Céline Sciamma said through laughter, “I don’t need your approval!” Ten minutes earlier, a lengthy applause break punctuated the film screening and Sciamma was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation. Sitting in a folding director’s chair on-stage in the sold-out Music Box Theater in Chicago, IL, Sciamma shared insights on the filmmaking process during a question and answer session with the audience. The early pre-screening of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) was part of a press tour preceding the films wide release in the United States.
Writer and director Céline Sciamma’s historical drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” tells the story of two women’s growing lesbian relationship. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloise (Adèle Haenel) are brought together by circumstance; Marianne is hired to paint Héloise’s portrait without her noticing. Their relationship is built on understanding, passion, and the painful reality that they can not stay together. The backdrop of the French shoreline provides a gorgeous landscape for their love. Alongside the breathtaking backdrop, intimate moments and the elegance of everyday objects become equally as awe-inspiring. A crease on the cheek from smiling, a game of cards, and a thoughtfully-placed mirror produce the same effect.
Every single element of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — from the costumes to the impeccable acting — is executed with care, making every shot a crucial piece of the story. Though their love is central to the plot, Marianne and Héloise are fully fleshed-out characters individually; each with rich backstory and motivation for their actions. It’s clear that the film was made by and for women. The female gaze is evident throughout and, as Sciamma puts it, “the female gaze is about not objectifying.” It’s about identification with the character instead. The crucial question Sciamma asks herself is “Are you sharing the experiences with the character?” — centering the humanity and complexities of her character’s lives.
By the end of the 2-hour film, the audience leaves feeling the same things they feel: love, heartbreak, and, above all, longing. The ending holds a similar complexity and hopefulness to Sciamma’s other films “Water Lilies,” “Tomboy,” and “Girlhood.” Sciamma said she thought of the ending scene first. Many people dread the ending. It can be sad and hard to wrap everything up neatly. Sciamma revels in the unraveled, unfinished ending that leaves possibilities open. She said she thinks of her endings as goodbyes, not the end of the character’s journey. After the film ends, the characters, in a sense, continue their lives the same way viewers do. So, as the music and emotions build as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” concludes, it’s not the end. It’s only goodbye for now.