Portraits, Spirits, Islands on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on fire. Script and direction: Céline Sciamma. Image: Claire Mathon

The Tempest before the storm. Rocky shores, an island, a remote, semi-protected place for women alone. But they aren’t. And they know it. They know what awaits them offshore. They know what surrounds them, has always surrounded them. They know the countless obstacles in their way. Not just being young women. But being young women in love. Being jeune filles who love each other in 18th century France. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Sciamma’s film is a dream, a haunting, pre-Raphaelite dream, set on an island off the coast of Brittany in 1760. A young lady (Adèle Haenel), fresh out of the convent, is to be married to an Italian nobleman all too soon. Arranged, it is not what she wants. It is not who she is. So her mother, a countess (Valeria Golino), struggles to bring it all together with a portrait, thinking this will finalize the arrangement. Put a bow on it. So she hires Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to befriend Héloïse and paint her in secret, at night, after they’ve walked and talked along the shore.

Is her mother that much in the dark about her own daughter? Did she not know how the two would respond to new secrets and their revelations?

Héloïse still mourns for her sister, whose recent suicide likely sent her to an early life in a convent. The countess must have thought she could arrange both a friendship and a painting that would push her daughter into another world, far away from those remote rocky cliffs and death. She must have feared that her daughter would follow her other daughter into the sea. She followed the painter instead, into a new life, a new way of being.

Few movies know how to end things. Even the best films often fail to wrap up or open up as they should. Sciamma ends this most beautiful of melancholy odes in an impossible fusion of repressed eroticism, passion and understatement. Vivaldi is the spark. A treasured memory for Héloïse, an echo of rocky cliffs brought back to life.

Portraits, Spirits, Islands on Fire
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