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A Paean To the Female Gaze: The Stunning Visuals for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

With stunning visuals from director of photographer Claire Mathon, director Céline Sciamma’s 18th century period drama won the 2019 New York Film Critics Circle award for best cinematography.

Directed by Céline Sciamma with stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ arrives in theaters on July 14, 2020.
Directed by Céline Sciamma with stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ arrives in theaters on July 14, 2020.

Directed by Céline Sciamma with stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a love story about a young woman facing marriage and an artist commissioned to paint her portrait. The 18th century period drama received a one-week limited release from distributor Neon in New York and Los Angeles for awards contention, to be followed by a nationwide expansion for Valentine’s Day 2020. Featuring breathtaking visuals, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won best screenplay at Cannes, and received the Best Cinematography Award at the 2019 New York Film Critics Circle earlier this month. Jon Fauer at Film and Digital Times notes that the project is “a portrait in Large Format cinematography: RED MONSTRO 8K VV, LEITZ THALIA primes, Preston Light Ranger 2 and more.”

Download Jon Fauer’s article on the film’s cinematography here.

In his review for Rolling Stone, film critic Peter Travers calls the film “a three-alarm romance,” writing that it is “one of the most beautiful and transporting films you will ever see.” Writing in the New York Times, Ren Jender lauds Portrait of a Lady on Fire for its understanding of queer desire, noting that in the film “a glance, a stare is everything”:

“To paraphrase Sonic Youth’s co-founder Kim Gordon, in her memoir ‘Girl in a Band’: To be a woman is to observe others observing you. Likewise, to flirt as a queer person is to immerse one’s self in the act of looking and being looked at, sometimes in secret. For many of us, that gaze at someone or some image is how we first realized our sexuality.”

Rachel Handler, in her interview with Sciamma and actor Adèle Haenel for Vulture, calls the film a “paean to the female gaze,” made entirely by women:

“If the words ‘tragically romantic French lesbian period drama’ do not immediately inspire you to run to the theaters, perhaps the words ‘the best tragically romantic French lesbian period drama I’ve ever seen that essentially ruined my life for three solid days’ will. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma and starring Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, took Cannes and TIFF by storm this year, garnering Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at Cannes, standing ovations at both fests, glowing reviews, and the sort of prerelease buzz you can’t buy. Believe the hype: The film is beautiful and shattering, a paean to the female gaze that’s shot by women, directed by a woman, and starring almost exclusively women. It’s the sort of movie that you can’t shake: You’ll never look at a rocky beach, an armpit, or a book’s 28th page the same way again.”

Sciamma, noting art’s influence on culture, tells Handler that she and Mathon sometimes joked they were “saving the world” with this film:

“I think I said it once, really. The third day of shooting, shooting the scene on the beach where Marianne finds Héloïse and cries and says, ‘Your mother’s coming back,’ and they kiss. Suddenly, it’s this big, emotional thing. And the fourth take was like, wow. I called ‘cut’ and I turned to my DP and I told her, ‘We are saving the world.’ And she said, ‘We are saving the world.’ And that was the first time we said it. Sometimes we said it as a joke, like, ‘Are we saving the world?’ It was mostly a joke. But, of course, images and culture can change culture.”

In his review for The New Yorker, Richard Brody writes that “Céline Sciamma’s drama of the personal and creative relationship of a painter and her subject, is unusually dominated by a single figure of cinematic style: physical poise and stillness, exemplified in the fixity of a gaze,” a distinction it share with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman:

“It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the movie pivots, even before the women’s romantic connection begins, on the relationship of the artist and the model and, in particular, on Marianne’s confession to Héloïse that she’s been painting a portrait. The result of this new understanding is a transformation of the personal and the artistic bond — and of Marianne’s art itself, which, to that point, had been mainly technical and formal. With the revelation of Marianne’s artistic purpose, Héloïse becomes her willing and involved artistic collaborator — yet their intellectual and creative collaboration does not dilute the individuality of Marianne’s artistry but, rather, heightens it. The transformation of art from an applied technique to a vital experience — and a personal passion — is the drama’s crucial turn, and it inescapably brings to mind the artistic relationship of director and actor. Sciamma brings this to the fore in an extraordinary sequence in which Héloïse challenges Marianne’s position as the observer and her own place as the observed, and which gives rise to a simply constructed yet visually intricate game of gazes and mirrors that resounds with psychological and creative implications.”

One of the film’s most remarkable sequences, which Amy Taubin, writing for Film Comment, calls “amazing,” features an abortion, which is so rarely depicted on screen, and never in such a nurturing and caring way. “We make films for the sake of a few scenes — the scenes that drive you to build the whole thing — and of course this one was essential,” Sciamma tells Taubin:

“…That was the most disturbing thing when I did my research about women painters at that time: I knew the stars — Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Angelica Kauffman — but I didn’t realize how numerous they were and that there was a flourishing artistic scene. When I discovered the body of work of those painters who were erased by art history, it was troubling and sad, also because those images are consequently missing from our lives. We are cut off from the story of our intimacy and the portrayal of the hearts and desires and bodies and private lives of these women, so I’m always trying to bring to life the images that are missing. That doesn’t mean it should be a simple illustration — it’s not about just having an abortion scene, it’s also finding your own image, and a unique one. The infants consoling her as she gets the abortion isn’t an illustration — it’s a new image within an image that is already missing.”

Andrew Lapin, writing for NPR, notes how Portrait of a Lady on Fire unfolds slowly, allowing the film’s visuals to fully tell the story:

“…Portrait captures the blossoming romance of the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and a governess’s daughter, Héloïse (BPM’s Adèle Haenel), who has been promised to a mysterious ‘Milanese gentleman’ upon completion of her portrait. Their relationship unfolds in private, on an island off the coast of Brittany, with nary another soul around: a world without men or rules, a life that cannot last. Despite their limited time together, which will end with Marianne’s final brushstroke, Sciamma doesn’t underline a sense of urgency. Instead, she has her leads walk through their cavernous house in echoing footsteps, bathed for the most part in candlelight. They speak slowly, deliberately. There’s no musical score. When they stroll outside, the brightness of the water and sand briefly blinds us: the cinematographer, Claire Mathon, plays with this rich visual contrast like (OK, fine) a painter.”

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, film critic Joe Morgenstern is struck by the “sumptuous” quality director of photography Mathon conjures for the film:

“Close your eyes, listen to the spare dialogue and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Open them and you’re confronted by colors of a purity and subtlety that not only befit a story of art and portraiture (among other things) but carry much of the drama’s emotional content. Cinematographers used to be called lighting cameramen. This production’s lighting camerawoman, Claire Mathon, conjures with light as if it were palpable, and as spreadable as pigment on canvas. Many scenes evoke the creaminess of Vermeer, although the action is set not in 17th-century Holland but on an island off the Brittany coast at the end of the 18th century.”

Luke Hicks, in his review for Film School Rejects, also notes the film’s slow unspooling, and how it ratchets up the tension of the narrative:

“For this first hour or so, the film moves along at a snail’s pace, inching ever closer to the sensual tension that brews beneath the surface with stark tonal precision. Every small, quiet, seemingly trivial moment works wonders, drawing you deeper into the swelling ambiance of forbidden love. You feel it bubbling up in the tacit moments between Marianne and Héloïse. They fixate their unblinking eyes on each other with unremittent desire, emit stolid nervous ticks, and speak only in quick bursts of conversation, as if expressing too much would expose the vulnerability they crave from one another.”

Film critic Justin Chang writes that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is “an exquisitely beautiful and contemplative chamber drama about the agonies of forbidden desire and the consolations of art, and particularly the mystery of how an artist’s gaze shapes — and is shaped in turn by — its subject,” in his review for the Los Angeles Times:

Portrait is a movie of many firsts. It’s Sciamma’s first production starring established actors rather than gifted screen newcomers, and her first period drama. Still, she downplays the logistical challenges of re-creating an aristocratic 18th century household. (The picture was shot in Quiberon, on Brittany’s Côte Sauvage, or Wild Coast.) When she talks about the movie — a love story layered with ideas about memory, equality and the lasting power of the image — a word she keeps using is ‘playful.’”

“I really wanted to build the movie around rituals and variations, so that we could be playful with that,” Sciamma tells Chang. “I wanted to show how love and desire grow between two people, step by step…the rhythms, the breathing, the delays, the frustrations.”

Directed by Céline Sciamma with stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ arrives in theaters on July 14, 2020.

Looking for more creative inspiration? Check out Cinematographer Robbie Ryan On “Privileged Space” Of “Marriage Story”.