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'Portrait Of A Lady On Fire' Paints A Picture Of Forbidden Love


This is FRESH AIR. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, the screenwriting prize went to "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire." It's the latest film from the acclaimed French filmmaker Celine Sciamma. It tells the story of the relationship between a young woman painter and the young woman who is her reluctant model. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the film is a brainy, beautiful story of a search for freedom.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The BBC recently released a list of the 100 best films by female filmmakers as chosen by a poll of film experts from over 80 countries. If the No. 1 movie came as no big surprise - it was Jane Campion's 1993 "The Piano" - it was hard not to be struck that the vast majority of the list had been made since then. This isn't because the experts have the attention span of gnats, but because for most of film history, it was hard - bordering on impossible - for women to make movies.

That's finally begun to change in recent decades, and we're now enjoying an explosion of women filmmakers telling new stories or reworking old ones from a new angle. Although she's just over 40, the French writer-director Celine Sciamma already has three films on the BBC list. The highest-ranked and best of them is her latest, the smart, beautifully acted "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire." Sciamma's earlier work was about adolescents dealing with gender identity, dawning sexual awareness and female solidarity. She raises these themes to an even higher cinematic level in this latest movie, a gorgeous costume drama that takes a classic male theme - the artist and his muse - and revises it in a revelatory feminist direction.

The time is the late 18th century, the dawn of the Romantic era, when a young painter named Marianne, played by Noemie Merlant, gets called to a remote wave-battered island off Brittany. She's been commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise, played by Adele Haenel, who's been pulled from a convent in order to marry the Milanese fiance of her dead sister. There's just one problem - Heloise refuses to pose. Marianne must paint her on the sly while pretending to have been hired as her personal companion. As the two stroll the beaches and cliffs, Marianne tries to memorize the features of the fast-walking Heloise, a proud, angry woman who resents being shipped off to an Italian man she knows nothing about.

Such big-souled yearning for independence is something Marianne can identify with. Her own artistic career is being held back by being a woman. Their connection grows ever deeper as the worldly Marianne introduces her muse to pleasures like harpsichord music, and Heloise wants the painter to grasp the difference between a portrait that captures what someone looks like and one that captures who they are.

Bit by bit, the two grow more and more charged with the desire that we wait to burst into flame. And it does. "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire" is erotic, but not in the male-gazy (ph) way of movies like "Blue Is The Warmest Color," where the sex scenes seemed to exist more for the audience than for the characters. Although there is a touch of nudity, Sciamma's female gaze is subtle, restrained, from the lingering way Marianne studies the flesh tone surrounding Heloise's ear to the dazzling moment - I won't spoil it - when Marianne does a self-portrait in a book she's lent Heloise.

Not so long ago, it was brave, even transgressive, merely to tell a lesbian love story on screen. That's less true today, at least in the West, as Sciamma well knows. Even as she builds her story toward a deeply moving conclusion, she takes care to give us much more, from Claire Mathon's exquisite cinematography to a startling look at abortion, 18th-century style. Men scarcely appear in the film. It is part of Sciamma's point that they don't need to be present to shape the heroine's futures. Patriarchy is the element in which women, even heroic ones, must swim, which isn't to say that her vision is defeatist - quite the contrary. "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire" is about seeing - seeing the world, seeing other people, seeing a different way of living and then acting on it.

On their small island, Marianne and Heloise catch a glimpse of utopia. They create, however briefly, a small realm of freedom that predicts a time, 200 years later, when a woman like Sciamma can freely make a film that celebrates their forbidden love.

GROSS: John Powers is our critic at large. He reviewed the new film "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire."


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with actor David Harbour, who plays the police chief in the Netflix supernatural series "Stranger Things," or with BJ Miller, a palliative care and hospice doctor whose work is influenced by an accident 30 years ago that left him a triple amputee, or with Peter Minter about the global journey of the stuff we donate or discard - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.