Kirsty Arnaud tells us about her first experience of French arthouse cinema...
Diving in at the deep end, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire was my first splash into the art of French cinema. Having been exposed to some light-hearted forms of french cinema through studying Higher French at school, this film served as a baptism of fire at the Inverness Film Festival this weekend.
The dramatic landscape of the north coast of Brittany isolates stars Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in a private world of passion. In the eighteenth century, French artist, Marianne (Merlant), arrives to paint Héloïse (Haenel) in her mansion house. Héloïse’s mother has commissioned Marianne to paint her daughters portrait to consolidate her marriage. However, Héloïse is grieving the suspected suicide of her sister. Marianne must paint her without her knowing. It is through spending time together that their feelings develop and blossom, like French purple irises in the warming summer.
The two would-be lovers are brought together by two things: art and music. Yet for sometime there is an absence of both. The lack of music creates an intimate viewing experience and as the use of sound builds over time, so does the two women's (initially unspoken) love. The first flashpoint of their relationship is heralded by the first musical note of the film; a single key from a harpsichord. However, unlike art and music (in which one can indulge) the two characters have to face up to a decision: is it best to resist temptation to avoid inevitable pain or to follow their hearts? As Marianne dresses Héloïse, it is as if the sharp pull of the corset mirrors the abrupt severity of reality, tightening the characters into a world of social conformity to avoid persecution.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire identifies core issues that are still prevalent today. This love story is not necessarily of gender or sexuality but of raw emotion, passion, irresistible allure and self acceptance. The emotion between the two women is love in its purest, most natural form and what this film suggests is that surely love is only forbidden when there are people who deem it so. No thoughts or boundaries stand in the way of their intimacy. Yet their relationship suffers from the discrimination that has been non-existent in their own housebound world, seeping in to their dynamic as this form of prejudice was and (unfortunately) can still be inescapable. Their love is never at risk, for no fire can destroy something so unique. It is their connection, relationship and friendship that risks being tarnished by the world’s expectations and regulations.
This film says so much despite its limited use of dialogue. It was beautifully eye opening to explore different aspects of French culture through the art of visual language. It also highlighted a message that is incredibly important to me: that love is love and not even fire can destroy such a strong emotion.
This blog was written by:
Supported by Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network, and funded by Creative Scotland and Lottery funding from the BFI.