Portrait of a Lady on Fire Director: Celine Sciamma. . 2019. 122 min. Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino.

This classical yet radical romantic period drama set shortly before the French Revolution is the fourth feature from 40 year old French auteur Celina Sciamma, who has described it as a “manifesto on the female gaze”. Sciamma has described the film’s title as deliberately evoking the work of a writer she loves, , “who wrote so well about women”. Middle-class portrait artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) takes on her most challenging commission yet, Breton aristocrat Heloise (a part written for and played by Sciamma’s former partner Adele Haenel, who also starred in her debut film Water Lilies).

Sciamma, best known in this country for her last film Girlhood, is a highly engaged feminist filmmaker: she co-organised the 2018 protest against the Festival’s history of excluding women filmmakers, and is an advocate for the gender parity in the campaign 5050x2020. Sciamma and Haenel (whose public allegations of abuse against a French filmmaker have made her the figurehead of the French ‘Me Too’ movement) walked out of the 2020 Cesar Awards ceremony (the French Oscars) in protest against ’s Best Director win.

Portrait was nominated for 10 Cesars and won Best Cinematography, one of many awards for her work on this film won by Director of Photography Claire Mathon (Sciamma has worked with female DPs on all her films). Although Sciamma did intensive research on female artists when writing the screenplay, particularly 17th century Dutch painter Judith Leyster, the work seen on screen was painted by a contemporary artist she found on Instagram, Helene Delmaire.

“Like in ’s Phantom Thread, which is full of secret messages, only obvious once you know where to find them, this glorious, spare and heartfelt story is about lovers coding their feelings onto worldly things, and the dance of desire that precedes the birth of love. … Sciamma’s recurring obsession [in her work] is with marginalised people … and their social microcosms at times of palpable discovery and growth.” Sophie Monks Kaufman, Empire Magazine

Winner Best Screenplay (Sciamma) and Queer Palm, Cannes Film Festival; Best Screenwriter, ; Best Foreign Language Film, Critics Circle Awards.

A discussion of the film will take place at 9.30pm on the Wimbledon Film Club Facebook page. You can also sign up to the WFC Google Group to discuss films over email.

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