‘A Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, directed by Céline Sciamma, could probably be watched without subtitles, as much of the story is unspoken, told instead through looks and images that constitute a power greater than the characters can express in words. This years winner of the Queer Palm at Cannes is set in 18th Century France, as artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is employed to paint a portrait of her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), without her knowledge. The painting, she knows, will facilitate an arranged marriage against Heloise’s will. The women are left on an island, and the setting is one of natural force, surrounded by the wind and the sea that rage alongside the quiet rebellion that develops within their relationship. Their isolation is freedom, gradually discovered.
Sciamma’s composition feels elegantly considered, from the evocative framing of shots to the subtle depiction of her characters, particularly Héloïse, played by Haenel with brilliant passion and restraint. The writing centres often on the implicit: the privileging of the female gaze, the discovery of a space outside the laws and conventions of patriarchy, and an examination of consent through the reconstruction of the concept of the muse. Her characters feel human, though, and specifically female, grounding an otherwise ambitious film in emotion where it often steps into the realm of the symbolic.