- 24 Feb 20
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma. Starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino. 121 minutes. In cinemas February 28. An enthralling portrait of love and the female gaze.
“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” asks a character in Céline Sciamma’s sumptuous, sensual and superbly elegant drama. Lovers do, of course; and they’re both right and wrong. Love may be a universal emotion, but each experience of it is unique, as lovers revel in the minute individual details of each other, the complexity of their singular dynamic. The same could be said for Sciamma’s film; a familiar story about falling in love, but told so eloquently, and shot with such a rapturous gaze that it feels like she has indeed invented something.
Set in 1770, Marianna (Noémie Merlant) is an artist living in the shadow of her father’s celebrated work, who agrees to an unusual assignment. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is the daughter of a French countess (Valeria Golino), recently called back home from a convent and unhappily betrothed to an unknown man from Milan. The countess hires Marianna as a companion for her defiant daughter, instructing her to observe Héloïse by day, and from memory, secretly paint a wedding portrait that will make the match official.
As Héloïse and Marianne spend time together, the latter’s eyes drink in every detail of her subject, lingering on the shape of her lips, the startling green of her eyes, the curves of her ear. The intimacy of her gaze – and Sciamma’s – is palpable, but as the two women get to know each other, the gaze becomes mutual, changing from that of artist and muse to that of equals, and lovers. Equality also fuels their interactions with a maid (Luàna Bajrami), whose personal problem unites the women in a sense of solidarity and understanding that transcends class or status. However, their relationships exist within the confines of a patriarchal society, whose rules hang over them. In a remarkable scene, women gather around a crackling bonfire and chant ‘non possunt fugere’ continuously: you may not realise this is Latin for ‘they cannot escape’.
As social values of propriety and restraint allow Merlant and Haenel to create a simmering, slow-burning eroticism together before the characters’ relationship turns physical, Sciamma evokes Merlant’s painterly eye and tender hand in her staggeringly beautiful visuals, composing her shots like luminous, textural paintings. The soundscape is also intimate, with no external music. Instead, the film’s rhythm is created by the sounds of brushstrokes on canvas; rustling skirts; howling wind; and the sound of held, heated breath finally escaping.
We need a different word for masterpiece.
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