Céline Sciamma is one of the best directors in the world at the moment, and one of its most important. The latest by the writer/director of the black, female, banlieue buddy movie Girlhood is perhaps even better. And that’s saying something.
Brittany, 1770. A painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), arrives at a chateau on the coast for a very particular assignment. A countess (Valeria Golino) wishes to have a portrait painted of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will be sent to the latter’s intended husband in Milan. But Héloïse isn’t playing ball, having refused outright to pose for the previous painter. Marianne is instructed to use subterfuge – hiding her profession, acting as a walking companion while observing her subject and painting in secret.
But what will happen when this deceit is, inevitably, exposed? More to the point, when will Marianne and Héloïse acknowledge their mutual attraction?
The context, of course, is a heavily male-prescribed society. Until recently, Héloïse has resided in a convent, where she found that “equality is a pleasant feeling.” If an arranged marriage wasn’t terrible enough, she’s actually taking the place of her late sister, who threw herself off a cliff, presumably as a response to her fate. In contrast, Marianne has taken over her father’s business as a painter-for-hire, and is self-sufficient enough to sidestep the pressure to marry; she’s confident, dynamic (the opening shot of her rescuing a canvas from the sea brilliantly establishes that) and perhaps a little too assured in her craft – something which the perceptive, quietly rebellious Héloïse will challenge.
Sciamma made her name with contemporary stories about young female experience –Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood. Alongside its romance, this film features a gorgeous account of female camaraderie and solidarity, as Marianne and Héloïse form a close, class-free triumvirate with the servant, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), which includes a sensationally well-delivered subplot in which the two lovers help the younger woman with an abortion.
The director makes the transition to period with ease, grounding the film in her usual empathy, bold narrative choices and superbly lean and effective dialogue. It’s exquisitely designed and shot, with colour-coded attention to clothing, a vividness to sea and sky, a striking luminosity to the close-ups. And the performances are impeccable, not least when Haenel and Merlant convey their characters’ burgeoning, impossible romance in silence, using glances, gestures and sheer chemistry to convey a wealth of emotion.
This is a sublime film, at once an atypical love story and a film about painting itself, the physical act and that more intangible alchemy between painter and subject, the observer and the observed; radically, that gaze here belongs to women, with barely a man in sight throughout. And they’re not in the slightest bit missed.
This review first appeared in The i newspaper