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Forbidden or difficult love affairs have been with us since the birth of cinema, and period dramas of illicit same-sex romance have essentially become their own sub-genre. Céline Sciamma’s exquisitely realised Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is set in the eighteenth century on an island off the coast of Brittany, doesn’t radically alter the story template we have come to expect from these films; it’s all about the execution, and the execution is pretty flawless.
The screenplay, for which Sciamma deservedly won a prize at Cannes, is so compelling not for how it radically alters the genre but for how it surprises and intrigues within it. Challenges come from unexpected – which is not to say dramatically unfair – places; supporting characters develop in interesting ways; the milieu acts as both agency and obstacle for the affair.
But it’s the credibility of any love story that pulls us in, the fact that we can believe in it and surrender to it, and Portrait’s gradual portrayal of the growing affection between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is sublime. These actors, often framed in tight close-up, unaided by music, flashy camera moves or phoney narrative devices, proceed at their own individual paces toward a shared inevitable conclusion. The film is clearly framed as Marianne’s story, but each is as complex as the other. Any Awards ceremony worth their salt would have to split a leading acting prize between them; they are full collaborators with Sciamma, and all together they have made a triumphant love story that will resonate for decades.