Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019)

Written & Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Winner of last year’s queer palm at Cannes, Portrait of a Lady of Fire creates something new. By using the form of a period piece, Sciamma was able to create something contemporary. Set in the late 1700’s on a remote island, Marianne (Noèmie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

While the age of Enlightenment is taking place, women remain tethered by convention whether in painting, servitude or marriage the women of this film find themselves propelled by outside/social forces. For a time, these women are seemingly protected, isolated from the mainland and patriarchal society before being forced to confront the reason their lives have come together in the first place. The women of this film learn to depend on each other, finding a sense of companionship and balance only to have it abruptly end.

Hailed as a post me-to0, LGBTQ and feminist masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film most concerned with the artist and the idea of the gaze. This theory can be used a bridge between art as a medium and social theory, integrating politics and art history. While a gaze can be used to confer meaning upon a piece, the relationship of the viewer and the viewed are always in negotiation.

As best stated by [French historian and philosopher] Michel Foucault while studying the function of the gaze in the painting Las Meninas the “observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable…subject and object, spectator and model reverse their roles into infinity.” This communication is the exploration of director Céline Sciamma. The relationship between the two main characters blurs until it is unclear who is looking at whom. Through the film, the gaze becomes their mode of interaction. Intimacy and attraction grow as they share in this collaborative act and the painting’s completion serves as tribute.

Héloïse’s journey goes from being an object/the muse to someone who observes the subject and thus becomes the Marianne’s collaborator. This is a really amazing technical performance by Adèle Haenel, which destroys the traditional idea of art as a horizontal relationship to a horizontal one of give and take, or as in painting, layers of alternation.

This film also challenges the assumption that we have progressed as a society as well as in art, or at least that progress happens in a linear fashion. Choosing to place the film in the time of the late 18th century, a time known for a huge rise in female artists who were later censored and removed from art history is a very intentional choice. It is the perfect time to place a critique on the backlash female filmmakers are currently facing. This goes back to the idea of the gaze and one’s in ability to control how one is perceived by others, specifically due to culture and society. As Michel Foucault states “insofar as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on this qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved.”

A truly beautiful and cerebral film that will give you an exciting and new perspective on art and love. It’s a hopeful as well as critical film that offers insight into ideas of identity and personhood.

– Review by Jessie Zumeta


Have you seen Portrait of a Lady On Fire? Well, what did you think? 

MSPIFF 2015 Review: GIRLHOOD (Bande de Filles)

MSPIFF15reviewsGirlhoodPosterOne of my favorite things about film festivals is that you get to see indie gems like Girlhood that you otherwise wouldn’t even find. It’s especially gratifying to see a female-centric drama that’s written AND directed by a female filmmaker, Céline Sciamma.

Girlhood or Bande de Filles (Gang of Girls) is primarily centered on a 16-year-old girl Marime. Abused by her brutish older brother, with dead-end school prospects and the boys law in the neighborhood, Marieme starts a new life after meeting a group of 3 free-spirited girls. She changes her name, her dress code, and quits school to be accepted in the gang, hoping that this will be a way to freedom.

At a glance, it seems like a gritty drama about a gang of girls set in a low-income suburbs of Paris. We see the girls involve in what you’d expect a street gang would do — mugging, stealing, smoking pot, street fighting, etc. There’s a certain realism to the way these scenes play out and the mostly unknown actresses are believable in their roles. Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré played the roles of Lady, Adiatou and Fily, respectively.

Girlhood_still2Karidja Touré is mesmerizing as Marime. I could feel her pain and somehow identify her pain despite our lives being so completely different. But y’know what, we can all relate as a human being… I was young once and there were points in my life where I wanted to feel like I belong, that I am loved… and more importantly, that I have the freedom to do what I want without fear. Even as an adult we often face a crossroad where the path isn’t immediately clear. And for someone with such limited options like Marime, that conflict is surely amplified. The way the film portrayed Marime made it so easy for me to connect with her journey to find her place in the world.

There are so many memorable scenes in the film, such as when Marime first approached the three girls and later taking the train to Paris with them. There’s also the time ‘Lady’ the gang leader first gave Marime the ‘Vic’ necklace. It’s as if she’s now an *official* member with her new name — Vic for victory. Slowly the girls took her in and the bond between them felt real to me.

Girlhood_still3My all time favorite scene, which I immediately rewound right after it’s over, is the moment when the girls are all dressed up in their rented hotel room. Sciamma filmed the scene like a music video where the girls started dancing and lip-syncing to Rihanna’s Diamond. There’s something so vibrant, effervescent vibe about that whole scene, yet poignantly moving. Marime was watching her friends first, but then joined in. It literally made me smile AND cry at the same time, and instantly I thought of my own *gang* of friends in high school who helped me through my pain of losing my late mother.

As Marime became ‘Vic’, naturally she’s started to give in to the rebellious nature that every teen has within. As she gains more confidence, the more vicious she’s become and does things she probably never thought she’d do. The film isn’t afraid of quiet moments where it’s just Marime alone with her thoughts, yet her expression conveys so much. Another thing I love about the film is how it doesn’t resort to stereotypes or oversimplifications. For one thing, not all the guys in Marime’s lives are evil, in fact, the heart-to-heart talk she has with her boyfriend is genuinely heartfelt.

Girlhood is Céline Sciamma‘s third feature, and she’s no stranger to the world of adolescence as her first two films deal with that world. Naturally stories of ‘growing up’ is an emotional mine and the French director has such a keen eye to explore the intricate aspect of youth in such a fascinating way. I also love the fact that despite the difficult and dark issues of the story, the film isn’t bleak and depressing. I laughed, cried, and cheered from start to finish, all the way to the gratifyingly-emotional finale. It’s not the kind of ending tied neatly in a pretty bow, but that’s exactly how I wanted it to end. There’s such power in that last shot of Marime.

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Visually speaking, I love the stylish cinematography and moody colors. It’s an ear-candy as well with electric pop soundtrack filled with awesome songs! I can’t recommend this film enough, folks. I don’t know if this film is eligible for a Best Foreign Language Oscar but if it did, I’d definitely be rooting for it! It’s amazing that this is Karidja Touré‘s debut role as she has such a screen presence. I can’t wait to see what she’d tackle next. I’ll be on the lookout for Sciamma‘s next project as well.

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Has anyone seen GIRLHOOD? Would love to hear your thoughts!