PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Celine Sciamma

Stars: Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Valeria Golina, Luana Bajrami.

Adèle Haenel in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019)

The fourth feature from French filmmaker Celine Sciamma (Tomboy, etc), Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a bittersweet romance between an artist and her reluctant subject, and it cements Sciamma’s reputation as one of finest queer filmmakers working today. This is her first film since 2014’s acclaimed coming of age drama Girlhood.

The film is set on an isolated island off the coast of Brittany in 1760. A young artist named Marianne (played by Noemie Merlant, from Once In A Lifetime, etc) has been hired by an Italian noblewoman (Valeria Golina) to paint a portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The completed portrait will be sent to Milan as a gift for the affluent husband whom the countess has arranged to marry her daughter. However, the virginal and naïve Heloise, who has only recently returned from the convent, is reluctant to get married and refuses to pose. Heloise is also struggling to cope with the suicide of her sister.

Marianne has travelled from Paris for the assignment. She is warned about the difficulty of the task as many other artists have come and gone, thwarted by Heloise’s refusal to sit for a portrait. Marianne’s best chance to complete the work is to pose as a companion to accompany Heloise on her regular walks along the harsh windswept coastal cliffs and beaches. Soon her furtive glances to memorise Heloise’s features are returned, and a romance slowly develops between the two. Their romance is shaped by lots of lingering looks, subtle glances and gestures and touches. But it is also a bittersweet and doomed romance, which leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a deliberately paced character study of two women in love, but it is also a study of the creative process. The film is a sensual and passionate romance shaped by subtle eroticism and the delicate restraint with which Sciamma handles the minimalist material. Sciamma’s female perspective gives this off beat romance an unusual honesty and depth, but also lends a contemporary sensibility to the period setting.

This is a tale of yearning, longing, empowerment, transformation, desire and gender politics, and the film seems to share some common threads with Sciamma’s work, from her first feature Water Lilies through to Tomboy and Girlhood. A subplot deals with Heloise’s sympathetic maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami), who is forced to undergo a crude abortion, an important element that shows the repression of women in this period.

There is a palpable chemistry between Merlant and Haenel that shapes the developing relationship between the two women, and they carry the emotional weight of the film. Haenel, who previously worked with Sciamma on Water Lilies and who has been involved in a relationship with the filmmaker, delivers a strong performance that draws upon her facial expressions and body language to convey her emotions. The film could also be seen as an intelligent and heartfelt reflection on the nature of the relationship between Sciamma and Haenel, and this adds another layer of emotion to the material.

The film is visually stunning, with some gorgeous, elegiac cinematography from Claire Mathon (the homoerotic thriller Stranger By The Lake, etc) who works with long takes and lots of intimate close-ups, but she also captures the harsh and stark beauty of the windswept coastline. There are exquisite costumes from Dorothee Guirard. There is a minimalist music score, although one haunting and strange but memorable scene features a group of pagan women chanting around a fire.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a beautiful romance that has done well on the festival circuit and picked up a number of awards along the way, but it is also a film that will appeal to a certain demographic rather than a wider, more mainstream audience.

★★★

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