Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma. 2019. 1h59m. # TIFF
Winner of the Cannes prize for best screenplay, Portrait finally made its way to Japan, further signaling the gulf between Japanese audiences and contemporary French cinema. A decade or two ago, Tokyo distributors would have rushed to pick up this film that would in turn have found an audience.
Another example of a productive relationship between filmmaker and performer, here actress Adèle Haenel whom Sciamma introduced in 2007 in her film Water Lilies, Portrait explores the sinuous means art is able to find in depicting love… in the 18th century. Imagining such a tale set within the world of contemporary art would be doomed from the start and as such the film points to an extensive set of agendas. Starting with the immediate narrative objective of deception and displacement that signals how romance theory informs each scene. The story sees a mother commission a woman painter (Noemie Merlant) to do a portrait of her daughter (Haenel). The painting is to be sent to a wealthy Milanese suitor, expected to marry her, so that he may witness her beauty. The daughter is already a replacement, that of an older sister who committed suicide. The mother pulls her out of the convent, but she will neither agree to this wedding; this is communicated in moments in which we see her standing too near a cliff’s edge or like Bruce Dern in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home going a little too far in the ocean… She can’t leave home, living on an island in Brittany.
The mother has the painter play a role, that of companion to the daughter, and when night comes, she will have to remember expression, pose, and lighting. The daily proximity and the nights leaving little else to consider, the painter falls in love with her model. Which allows Sciamma to move forward with the film’s activism, with the daughter refusing to be married off and embarking on a relationship that adds to the secrets the painter is expected to keep, and ultimately can’t. Except for the men who bring the painter to the island in the film’s opening, with her canvas going overboard and her swimming to save it, Portrait is very much about the absence of men, notably that of the suitor. It is however about sisters and what art does to that relationship, how it reconciles. Which makes one recall François Truffaut’s extraordinary Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, a film borne of suffering after the end of his two-year relationship with Catherine Deneuve. Adapted from the other novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the author of Jules & Jim, the film, set in 1899, had two British sisters, one of them an artist, fall into a relationship with the same man. As in all of Truffaut’s films, always about men who love women, it is the woman who emerges as the stronger figure, though not always without circumnavigating expected French stereotypes, characters played by Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Bernadette Laffont, Nathalie Baye and Fanny Ardant…
Some fifty years later, Sciamma did her own period piece that speaks very much to her era, rather than herself (the therapeutic use of cinema in the case of Truffaut). Portrait of a Lady on Fire would also become a symbol of resistance within the French film industry, with Adèle Haenel walking out of the Césars ceremony (the French ‘Oscar’) after Roman Polanski had won a number of prizes including best film. She has also joined forces with stage director Gisèle Vienne, whose work has been performed in Tokyo, forming a new powerhouse couple that awaits the end of confinement. Like being able to get off the island.
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