For some hardcore film buffs, Cannes is first and foremost a trial of endurance, sitting – and often dozing – through three, four, five movies a day. My neighbour at a screening last night had amassed an impressive tally of 37 films in six days (waking up at the end of the film, he was shocked to learn in an email from his boss that he would actually have to write about it too).
What irresistible force leaves us glued to our seats and so absorbed by the big screen? Is it the beauty we cannot find in broad daylight? Is it a windswept wheat field stroked by Terrence Malick’s camera, a neon-lit fist-up choreographed by China’s Diao Yinan, or the lingering memory of Alain Delon – a face so beautiful Dior still hasn’t found a replacement for its perfume ads – captured in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Eclipse”?
Midway through Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, the French director’s first competition entry in Cannes, its female protagonists sit near a fireplace to discuss the meaning of the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Why did Orpheus turn back to look at his love, knowing full well that in doing so he would forever banish her from the world? Was he merely faint-hearted, selfish or foolish? Or was it a conscious decision? Did he choose to be a poet rather than a lover, and keep the memory of Eurydice’s beauty and love uncorrupted by the disappointments and boredom of life?
Set in a remote corner of Brittany in 1770, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” marks a bold and rewarding foray into period drama for a director who has previously made her mark in contemporary social-realist stories, such as “Tomboy” (2011) and “Girlhood” (2014). But it shares the same concern with the female experience, questions of emotional awakening and self-discovery, and characters who defy and refuse categorisation. This time Sciamma adds an intellectual meditation on the artist’s gaze and the nature of love – and largely pulls it off.
Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, an artist commissioned to paint a portrait of young bride-to-be Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel. Except she has to do so in disguise, pretending she was hired as a lady companion, because the steadfast and solitary Héloïse is less than keen on the wedding and won’t sit down for the picture. The two draw closer as they go for daily walks along the cliffs, with Marianne’s probing gaze bent on memorizing her subject’s features. She paints a first portrait, but it’s academic and soulless. “Is this really how you see me?” asks Héloïse in dismay. So the artist begins anew, this time shirking convention to capture the essence of her subject – and the emotions she stirs.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an elegant and stylish slow-burner, but when the film it hits its stride the passion is fiery and absorbing. It is a tale of a woman swept off her feet by the passion of first love, and a meditation on love, beauty, rapture and art. Haenel is a convincing Héloïse, her wild, untamed glare gradually softening into a loving gaze. I was even more enthralled by Merlant’s turn as an artist emotionally overwhelmed by her subject. The all-female cast weaves a cocoon of warmth and tenderness removed from time and space, free from class differences and societal constraints (a somewhat contrived subplot involving the housemaid, played by Luana Bajrami, adds a further element of female solidarity). And when Héloïse stumbles upon a man for a split second towards the end, I was surprised to feel the same urge as her: to turn back at once and race out of the room.
Sciamma has made another bold choice by opting to do without a musical score (save in the closing scene), relying instead on the wind, the ocean and the ever crackling fires to emphasise the passion and the romance. There was even more such economy in Albert Serra’s “Liberty”, which screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. After mummifying French film legend Jean-Pierre Léaud in his sumptuous “The Death of Louis XIV”, the eclectic Spanish filmmaker is back with another 18th century period piece set in the twilight of the following reign, that of the Sun King’s great-grandson Louis XV.
“Liberty” strictly adheres to the three units of classical theatre: unity of time (a single night in the year 1774), space (a forest) and action (fetishistic sex games). It follows a group of decadent French aristocrats, with faces from a Pasolini movie, who have been banished from court due to their debauched behavior and find a haven for their licentious cruising in a German forest. Their libertinage is coated in philosophical and literary pretentions, with the film’s narrator of sorts (there is hardly any dialogue) lasciviously devising obscene fantasies even as he marvels at the “rich and voluptuous” manner of Christ’s death.
Oniric, erotic and cruel, Serra’s latest feature is lit and shot with a voyeuristic intimacy that many will find nauseating. There is plenty of luridly graphic footage, but the film is more about lurking, looking and leering, the characters and the camera mostly peering through the darkness and the foliage for a glimpse of the action. It is a game of one-upmanship between depraved aristocrats who generally talk a more extravagant game than they play. I’m not sure what Serra is trying to say about this decadent age he is so fascinated with, nor what the film’s title implies. But “Liberty” is as absorbing as it is exhausting, and a work of painterly beauty.