Celine Sciamma



6.5 Water Lilies (2008)
6.5 Tomboy (2011)
6.7 Girlhood (2015)
7.3 Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
7.0 Petite Maman (2021)
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Celine Sciamma (France, 1978) debuted with a trilogy on teenagers: Water Lilies (2008), Tomboy (2011) and Bande de Filles/ Girlhood (2015). She also scripted Claude Barras' stop-motion film My Life as a Courgette (2017).

Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu/ Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), shot by cinematographer Claire Mathon, superficially is a costume psychological drama, or a period lesbian romance, but is also an allegory about getting to know a human being, which is not only about painting the face in detail. It also turns into a fairy tale of eternal love. The film features no men between the beginning and the ending. We never even see the father who is the cause of the whole problem (not even a portrait).

The story opens at the end of the eighteenth century. Marianne, a young woman, is a cold stern teacher of painting to a group of girls. There's a painting sitting in a corner of the room, titled "Portrait of a Lady on Fire". That begins the flashback. Marianne is in a boat rowed by men in a rough sea. A wooden box that she is holding falls in the water and she jumps in the sea and swims to recover it. She climbs back on the boat, freezing. The boat leaves her on the beach with her wooden box and she has to climb a steep slope to reach a mansion. She arrives at night. The maid who escorts her to her room tells her that she's worked there for three years. The maid reveals that the young mistress Heloise was brought home from the convent after her sister died. The maid doesn't say what the woman died of but hints that the sister was supposed to get married and, after her death, the parents decided to marry instead the nun. The maid also warns Marianne that a previous painter failed to paint the young woman. Heloise only has one dress because she still wears convent clothes. Later, Heloise's mother admires a portrait of herself that Marianne's father painted years earlier. They sit down and the mother explains that Heloise refused to show her face to the previous painter so they hired Marianne not as a painter but as a walking companion. Marianne has to paint Heloise without Heloise realizing it, simply by observing her face during their walks. Heloise doesn't want a portrait because the portrait will be used to convince the suitor to marry her and she doesn't want to get married. The maid reveals to Marianne that the sister committed suicide jumping from a cliff: obviously she too didn't want to get married. The walks begin and Marianne is able to make the portrait by memory, one detail after the other. Marianne asks Heloise why her sister left a note apologizing. Heloise replies that her sister apologized because she knew that Heloise would be asked to marry the suitor. Heloise's mother tells Marianne that she too was forced to marry her husband. Heloise's mother is originally from Italy, like Heloise's suitor. She has lived a sad life, and misses Italy. Marianne convinces Heloise's mother to let Heloise go out alone and then lets Heloise smoke her tobacco. This way Marianne wins Heloise's trust. Then she asks her mother permission to tell Heloise the truth. While they are at the beach, Marianne confesses to Heloise that she's a painter hired to paint her portrait. Heloise, angry, undresses and enters the sea, even if she doesn't know how to swim. Marianne doesn't try to stop her and Heloise returns to Marianne, freezing. Later, Marianne shows the portrait to Heloise. Heloise doesn't recognize herself in it. Marianne is offended. Even before her mother can see the portrait, Marianne destroys it. The mother fires Marianne, but Heloise offers to pose and collaborate if Marianne paints it again. The mother leaves for Italy for five days and the two girls start working on a new portrait. At night, Marianna wakes up having her period. The maid tells her that she hasn't had hers in three months, i.e. that she is pregnant. Marianne turns out to be a specialist in abortion and admits to Heloise that she once got pregnant too. Marianne proves to Heloise that she has studied her in detail, but Heloise proves back to Marianne that she too has studied her in detail. One evening they drink wine with the maid. Heloise starts reading the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and they start arguing about the real reason why Orpheus turned back to look at Eurydice. They then join other women at a bonfire at the beach, where the maid talks to an old abortionist about her pregnancy (the abortion attempts failed). In the dark the women intone a ghostly humming sound that slowly turns into the "Fugere non possum" refrain while they also start clapping and smiling at each other. The next morning Marianne and Heloise walk back to the beach and kiss passionately in a cave. After dinner, which Heloise skips, they make love in bed. The following day they take the maid to the abortionist and they stare as the maid lies down on the bed and opens her legs, and the old woman inserts a poultice into the girl's vagina and kills the foetus, while two babies are playing around the maid. Back home, Heloise invites the maid to reenact the abortion on her own bed, and Marianne paints the scene. They make love more often. Every now and then Marianne has the vision of Heloise standing silently behind her in a white wedding dress. Marianne completes the portrait and this time Heloise approves. But then they have an argument and Heloise disappears. Marianne, scared, finds her at the beach, staring at the waves. It's their last day because Heloise's mother is coming back soon and Marianne will have to leave. Marianne also paints small portraits of each other to keep as memories. Marianne paints a self-portrait by using a small mirror placed above Heloise's vagina. She paints the self-portrait on page 28 of the book with the story of Orpheus. The sailors come to pick up Marianne. Marianne says goodbye to the mother, who is trying the white wedding dress on Heloise, and then runs down the stairs. As Marianne is walking past the door, Heloise (just like Eurydice) calls her. Marianne turns around and sees Heloise earing the white wedding dress, just like in her hallucinations. The flashback ends. Her students are leaving the room. Another flashback begins as Marianne remembers an exhibition where someone was admiring her painting of Orpheus and Eurydice. And there she saw a portrait of Heloise with her child. Marianne notices that Heloise is holding the Orpheus book and keeping a finger on page 28, the page where Marianne's self-portrait is, as if Heloise was sending her a message. Marianne smiles. Finally, another flashback shows Marianne walking into her seat at an opera house. Marianne spots Heloise sitting on the other side and stared at her as the orchestra started playing a piece that Marianne had played for Heloise (the "presto" movement from Vivaldi's "Summer") and sees that Heloise closes her eyes and starts sobbing.
(Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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