Every film festival has its breakout movie, the one that will be dominating conversations for months until it’s finally released in theatres. For the 72nd iteration of the Cannes Film Festival, that film is shaping up to be Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady On Fire, which premiered over the weekend to rave reviews.
The French-language film stars Noémie Merlant as Marianne, an 18th-century artist commissioned to paint a portrait of eligible bachelorette Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to be used in pursuit of the perfect suitor. The problem is that Héloïse has no intention of marrying, and therefore refuses to sit for the portrait, forcing Marianne to pose as her lady’s maid to gain her trust.
The period costume love story has been compared to Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Jane Campion’s The Piano, and Amma Asante’s Belle, and its gorgeous cinematography is already making the rounds on Twitter.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE absolutely undid me. Céline Sciamma burns #Cannes2019 to the 🔥ground🔥with this shattering & seductive 18th century Adèle Haenel / Noémie Merlant romance about love & memory. Still levitating from the last shots.— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) May 19, 2019
my review: https://t.co/832fszH35l pic.twitter.com/o56I4bZSd4
The film’s critical success is particularly important in light of Cannes’ poor track record with selecting and honouring women directors. The 2019 competition lineup only features four films directed by women out of 19 total contenders — Les Miserables by Ladj Ly, Little Joe by Jessica Hausner, and Sybil by Justine Triet round off the count — despite a major stand taken by women on the red carpet last year. The most significant gains have been made on the jury, which includes four women — including Elle Fanning, the youngest ever member — out of nine total judges.
For years, Cannes organisers have argued that the reason for the disparity is simply because the quality of films by women hasn’t been up to snuff, or my personal favourite (not) excuse, that there aren’t enough women directors to choose from. It’s a ridiculous cop-out and now we have concrete proof: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is competing for the Palme D’Or, the festival’s highest honour and it looks like it has a real shot. If it wins, Sciamma would become the second woman ever to receive the honour, following Jane Campion's win for The Piano in 1990.
But as critic Valerie Complex points out, a win for Portrait of A Lady on Fire would have added significance because it’s a representation of a queer love story that stars actresses identifying as LGBTQ+, as does Sciamma.
Best film I saw at #Cannes2019 is PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. It is premium gay content. A1, Ace, unforgettable, will send you.— valerie complex (@ValerieComplex) May 20, 2019
The acting is so good and the director and two lead actresses are actually queer IRL. I cant stop thinking about it.
Someone help me. pic.twitter.com/4VcBKm94yl
The hype around Portrait of A Lady on Fire is so real that even director Xavier Dolan, who has his own film, Matthias & Maxime, in competition, is raving about it. In an effusive Instagram post, the Québécois director and Cannes darling wrote: "Even when I try I am unable to remember the last time I sat in a theatre and heard such delicate, such incisive and profound writing. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of the Lady on Fire is magnificent!
"Adele Haenel’s performance is enrapturing, and although the film’s assiduous coldness is undeniably successful, the love declared to her through and by this story is the hidden force that made Sciamma's film haunt me in my sleep. I woke up this morning remembering how constant the artistry of the film was, and how it impressed me. But like with most lovers who leave us behind, the hidden secret behind their gaze is what we fall for in the first place, and it is what troubled me so here. I loved the film in all its apparent, immediate qualities, but what moved me to my core is the secret, the mystery that pulsates in its every silence and stare. I also have to say that the relief and the intimacy I felt throughout the film watching women, just women, for two hours of my life, were a novelty I want to be seeking again. It is important to witness its possibility. I felt comfort here, both romantically and psychologically, in the absence of men! Thank you to Celine and all her brilliant collaborators who made this powerful piece of cinema. I look forward to seeing it again as soon as possible."
Long story short: this is a film to watch. Just consider beautifully composed caresses by the sea the new Armie Hammer dancing clip.