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Look and Listen: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Cannes 2019)

Portrait 01

By Ali Moosavi.

Somehow I had not seen any of Celine Sciamma’s films until watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was in the main completion section. The beginning of the film can serve as a lesson for any budding screenwriter in how to hook the audience right from the start.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is an art teacher in Brittany in the eighteenth century, teaching a class of girl students. The students ask about one of her paintings showing a girl on fire. Marianne tells them there is a story behind this painting and that both the students, and us, the viewers, should look and listen closely to hear the story. I say “look and listen” as Sciamma shows amazing mastery in use of both sound and vision. She know exactly where to use music or natural sound, or just silence. She also knows when to use close-ups and how long to keep the camera on a face. It looks as though she has been a disciple of Ingmar Bergman.

In the story that Marianne tells, she is commissioned by a Countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adèle Haenel). The Countess wishes to take the portrait to Milan to show it to a suitor, as was the custom then. In another clever script device to maintain the grasp on the audience, the Countess also warns Marianne that the previously commissioned artists have failed in their attempts to paint her portrait. Therefore, Marianne is disguised as a lady companion and does the painting in secret.

As Marianne and Heloise go for walks along the seaside, and spend time together, an attraction develops between the painter and her subject. Sciamma displays her mastery of sound and camera in these scenes, using where appropriate, the sound of the waves hitting the shoreline, silence, excerpts from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and, in a very affecting scene, a group of girls singing, to convey the attraction building up between the two. Her mise en scène and awareness of the appropriate length of each shot is also masterful. These scenes enable us to fully appreciate the love and burning desire which is developed between the girls. For me, this love and desire was more affecting that that in Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013).

A long shot towards the end with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons filling the space, will be etched in the memory of the viewers for a long time. One of the effects of Sciamma’s film is that those who watch this film will look at paintings of persons, especially ladies drawn in previous centuries, in a different light and with a lot more thought and probing. This is what a successful artist can achieve, and Sciamma has done exactly that.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

Read also:

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