Berlin–France, 18th century. A remote Breton island, two women and the impossibility of great love: With “Portrait of a Young Woman on Fire”, the French director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma presents a love story that is as sad as it is magical. It was the most watched French film in 2020 – can be seen on WDR television on Thursday at 11.45 p.m. as the opening film of a Sciamma retrospective.
The film begins with a scene in which the painter Marianne (Noémi Merlant) sits as a model for her students. Just looking at her makes it clear that she is carrying a lot of pain around with her. When a student retrieves an old painting of hers from the depot, showing a woman with a burning dress, the eponymous “Young Woman on Fire”, she cannot contain her emotions.
A film like a painting
In a retrospect, it is now told what the picture and the pain in Marianne’s gaze are all about. Because Marianne once received an unusual commission: she is supposed to paint the portrait of a woman who absolutely doesn’t want it. An Italian countess brings her to the island to paint her daughter Héloise (Adèle Haenel).
But the young woman steadfastly refuses to sit as a model because the portrait will take her to Milan, where she is to marry a man she does not know. The picture should be a gift for the future husband. Refusal is the only rebellion option left to her. Her mother got her out of the convent school after her sister’s suicide (here a more drastic form of escaping the constraints of the world). To prevent this from happening to her second daughter, she is not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied.
Ad | Scroll to read more
Marianne is now trying to memorize Héloise’s face, especially during walks together on the cliffs, so that she can later put it on paper. The furtive glances she keeps throwing at her do not go unnoticed and quickly become more than just a working tool. Because the two women first become friends – and then fall hopelessly in love with each other. “Have you dreamed of me?” – “No, I thought of you.”
Especially when Héloise’s mother leaves to arrange the wedding in Milan, the two women experience carefree days together with the maid Sophie – however, Sophie has her own problems: she is pregnant and does not want to have the child under any circumstances.
No one in the film raises a moral question about abortion. Sciamma does not dispute the fact that women – even in time – have a right to it and to their own bodies. And when Sophie has her child aborted, the baby holds the hand of the woman who is helping her. Perhaps the most impressive scene in this film rich in lasting images. In parts, the film, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes, is itself a painting.
It’s a male-dominated world in which the women live – but there are no men in the film. Sciamma’s film is a deeply feminist one in which women are self-sufficient, turning to other women when they need help and would be happy if this world were not surrounded by another.
Sciamma doesn’t need grand gestures to tell the stories of her main characters. It is above all the looks of the women in which great things happen. The female gaze. The film is an important contribution to the gender debate, a feminist story of liberation, but above all a magical portrayal of falling in love.
Afterwards at 1.30 am, WDR will show the director’s first film, “Water Lilies” (2007), which deals with adolescent sexuality and the trials and tribulations of growing up.