Who doesn’t love a sexy French eighteenth Century…ish Sapphic love story on a Saturday night, in good company, in one of their happy places.
Well I do for sure so I spent my weekly cinephile trip watching the acclaimed ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ in the presence of a fabulous friend, at Chapter – the Canton-based arts centre for all.
After seeing it billed as an ‘entrancing historical romance…perceptive, erotic exploration of power…playfully literate,’ I couldn’t wait slump in my seat, see those subtitles scroll up, and settle down to 120 minutes of the latest lesbian focused film to hit our screens
And it didn’t disappoint.
The scene is set straight from the start as we see Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant, teaching life study to Parisenne art students, one of whom focuses firmly on a striking painting casually propped up on a nearby easel.
Showing a vision of an arresting young woman, in darkness, with flames licking at the hem of her flowing dress, we are then taken back in time to the start of, what becomes, a passionate and intense affair.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, this beautiful film, set in Brittany, superbly tells the seductive tale of young painter Marianne who is commissioned to paint a portrait of Lady Héloïse – the main purpose of which is to elicit marriage proposals.
We see Marianne sweeping in from a stormy sea journey to take her commission from the Countess, played by Valerie Goliono. Her daughter, convent educated Heloise, has already been summonsed home in the aftermath of her sister’s death .
The seemingly fragile and lonely mother needs the painted portrait so she can send it swiftly to a Milanese suitor. His approval will lead to a marriage proposal for her daughter, and a bright, new life in Italy for her.
But, there is a catch. Héloïse has absolutely no wish to be married, and even refused to show a previous painter her face, leaving the portrait, and the potential of her mother’s future, unfinished.
So Marianne, poses as her chaperone and companion, studying her subject in secret by day, whilst painting in the shadows at night, as a both sensual and stylish love story unfolds.
With strong themes of power, passion and patriarchy, the intensity of this sharp film is made even more so by the minimum of background music, apart from a signature scene surprise, leaving us to totally tuned in to the women and their journey. I liked that…a lot.
There is also a firm feature about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that runs right through the screening magnifying the film’s central question of who is looking at who.
Throw in a taboo subject sub plot shown in a very real and raw way, plus some ghostly gothic images, and we are reminded of just how on fire the writer and director is herself.
No spoilers from me though so I’ll leave it there. Suffice to say that this an erotic and artful film that shows the lesbian gaze in a much more credible way than most.
And provides an intimate portrayal of romance that can be enjoyed by all – not just that assumed niche LGBT audience.
Portray of a Lady on Fire firmly gets a fabulous five stars from me – and indeed from all those I spoke to in the cinema when the lights went up.
Truth be told, I can’t remember seeing such a mesmerising movie for many a moon. This Cannes Best Screen Play winner is well worth a watch.
In fact, the film, showing in Chapter Arts Centre until Thursday, also started its run almost the same day that another award-winning Sapphic love story I also loved for its honest portrayal, popped up on BBC Two.
Talented Rachel Dax’s terrific short, Time and Again, although very different from Céline Sciamma’s cinematic delight, is strikingly similar in the way it explores the women who love women narrative without simplistic stereotype…or sordid salaciousness.
It’s still sitting on iPlayer – so please catch that if you can too.
Sue Vincent-Jones, writing as Mrs SVJ, is a Barry born journalist, editor, and communications specialist. She blogs about Barry – and her life in the wider world, through the eyes of a, quirky and queer, local girl done good.
One of Wales Arts Review 100 Women Writers of Wales, the dedicated community supporter, passionate arts lover, and award-winning queer activist, will keep you “informed, entertained and inspired.”
Mrs SVJ, Barry’s Boldest Blogger, can be contacted here.