Portrait Of A Lady On Fire - REVIEW
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
Director: Celine Sciamma
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Running time: 121 Minutes
Censor: M (nudity)
PAUL ROSE is charmed by a slow-burning, forbidden 19th Century romance that’s as devilishly subtle as it is seductive.
Director Celine Sciamma’s previous works, Girlhood (2014) and Tomboy (2011) had contemporary settings, but Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has a historic and classical one, 18th century Brittany.
Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned by an Italian noblewoman (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel), who has just come out of a convent and is mourning the recent loss of her sister. The portrait is to be shown to a wealthy prospective husband in Milan, a man that Heloise hasn’t even met.
A previous artist had attempted the portrait but was fired when Heloise refused to sit for him on the grounds that she had no intention of marrying someone she didn’t even know. For this reason, the new portrait must be done in secret. As far as Heloise knows Marianne has been employed as a companion while the countess is away in Italy.
It takes a while for Heloise to warm to her “companion”, but before long the two of them are going on long walks together and exploring the countryside and clifftops. Marianne is being forced to paint the portrait in secret at nighttime from memory, so on these outings, she has to make furtive observations of her subject’s face to commit to paper later.
Some of these glances don’t go unnoticed.
Working late into the night, Marianne becomes obsessed with the abandoned portrait left behind by her unsuccessful predecessor, which is complete apart from the head, which consists of angry brushstrokes. Eventually – unhappy with her own attempt – she confesses the ruse to Heloise, who once her anger subsides agrees to sit for her. Now things are out in the open the women’s relationship begins to change. The furtive looks become knowing and longing glances. The electricity between the two becomes palpable and eventually leads to a passionate romance; one they know is taboo and will be short-lived.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a hauntingly good film. Beautifully filmed and directed, this evocative and intimate love story – like the two main characters – slowly seduces the viewer. The chemistry between the two main characters, and their ability to tell a story with a stolen glance, is beautiful to behold.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire won the Best Screenplay Award and the Queer Palm at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. I can’t recommend it enough.
* Portrait Of A Lady On fire opens in New Zealand celluloid palaces next Thursday, November 14.