Opens: December 26
Genre: Romantic drama
Duration: 119 minutes
This has been a year of heated discussion about the future of cinema, with much angst over the increasing role of streaming TV at its apparent expense. Yet ironically, cast your eyes more widely than the increasingly narrow range of Hollywood production and it becomes obvious 2019 has been an unusually strong year, with major films from countries including South Korea, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Columbia.
Look to that traditional nurturer of serious cinema, France, and you find this exquisite example of art cinema in the grand tradition from Céline Sciamma (Girlhood; Tomboy) set in the 18th century. It won the best screenplay award in Cannes, although the cinematography, acting and direction are no less worthy of prestigious trophies.
Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is a young woman living in a lonely mansion by the coast who is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. Artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives by boat to paint her portrait – a second attempt, as the first, with a different artist, did not pan out well. But she is told she will need to be discreet, as her subject refuses to sit. From here the dynamic between the two women gradually develops.
With its magnificently striking shots of women walking across a secluded beach or standing atop cliffs gazing out to sea, Portrait has echoes of The Piano and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but the most obvious touchstone is, perhaps, less well-known: the late Jacques Rivette’s 1991 La Belle Noiseuse. That film centred on a beautiful young woman having her portrait painted by a famous male artist, making it an inquiry into what influential film theorist Laura Mulvey dubbed “the male gaze”.
While Portrait is on the most obvious level about the creation of art, Sciamma is most concerned with the complex role of the female gaze – both that of the artist and her subject. It’s a quiet, meditative film that is indeed beautiful to, yes, gaze upon while you ponder its subtle yet powerful accumulation of thoughts and questions.