The less that is said about this film, the better the first-time viewer can revel in its extraordinary beauty.
The year is 1770, and Marianne is delivered by row boat to a windswept island off the coast of Brittany, France. “Head straight up to the trees,” says the boatman, leaving Marianne to find her way alone to the cliffside manor house. She’s been hired to paint a portrait of Heloise, a young aristocrat who’s been brought back from a convent to marry the Milanese nobleman her sister was supposed to marry–until she fell off a cliff and died. Heloise has no wish to marry the man, nor does she want her portrait painted and sent to him as an enticement. (Another artist failed at the task.) Her mother resorts to subterfuge: Marianne has been brought in to provide companionship for Heloise’s daily walks. Secretly, the artist is instructed to study her subject and paint her portrait without her knowledge.
This is French writer/director Celine Sciamma’s fourth film. At Cannes, she won the award for Best Original Screenplay. According to Deadline, “It’s the second best reviewed film behind Parasite.” And Parasite, of course, won Oscars for Best Picture and Best International Film.
The film is a love story between two women, and yet it seems to transcend the genre. New York Times critic A.O. Scott put it beautifully when he said, “This is less a chronicle of forbidden desire than an examination of how desire works.”
In interviews, Sciamma has talked about wanting to deconstruct the artist-muse relationship. This is not a story about an artist falling in love with her muse or a muse being seduced by a talented artist. It’s a story about what love looks and feels like when two people connect as equals (even though technically they’re not).
“I wanted to portray the intellectual dialogue and not to forget that there are several brains in the room. We see how art history reduces the collaboration between artists and their companions: before, a muse was this fetishized, silent, beautiful woman sitting in the room, whereas we now know that Dora Maar, the “muse” of Picasso, was this great Surrealist photographer.” Celine Sciamma, in an interview with FilmComment.com, Nov-Dec 2019
The beauty of this film rests not just in the love story, but also in the lead performances, the beginning-to-end cinematography which includes moments of stunning imagery, and the choice of music–spare but unforgettably woven into the story.