Portrait Of A Lady On Fire


Reviewed by: Richard Mowe

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
"What could have been a traditionally lavish costume drama has been pared down to highlight the erotic tension and sensuality" | Photo: © Lilies Films/Hold-Up Films/Arte France Cinéma

Céline Sciamma ratchets up her career with this ambitious and handsomely shot period drama Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which boasts sublime performances from the two main protagonists - Adèle Haenel as Héloïse, a reluctant bride who embarks on a passionate relationship with Marianne, a portrait artist, played by Noémie Merlant.

The theme is about the power of love to gather us up and take us forward and the action focuses on the chemistry between Haenel and Merlant from the time they first see each other to their long and languorous romantic liaisons.

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It is stunningly set in 1760 Brittany. Marianne, a painter, is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young lady who has just left the convent. Héloïse is less than willing to be wed to a Melanese nobleman she has never met and Marianne must paint her without her knowing. She observes her by day and secretly paints her at night.

It is the intimacy and attraction that grows between the two women as they share Héloïse’s first and last moments of freedom, that fascinates Sciamma’s gaze. Looming over it is the portrait that Marianne paints so assiduously and lovingly that it eventually will doom the relationship.

Marianne’s first attempt to capture Héloïse produces a likeness designed to meet with her husband-to-be’s approval rather than a true portrayal and Marianne sets it alight in a gesture of defiance and rebellion.

The pair begin to reveal themselves to each other as the relationship blossoms while Merlant’s Marianne becomes increasingly frustrated at being unable to capture her elusive lover on canvas.

What could have been a traditionally lavish costume drama has been pared down to highlight the erotic tension and sensuality while the love scenes are imbued with both passion and restraint. Sciamma, you feel, is making an unashamed nod to Jane Campion’s equally erotic The Piano.

Sciamma who made Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood, already has proved herself as a director of great intuition and insight but here she delivers a smouldering period piece that feels totally fresh and contemporary.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2019
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On an isolated island in Bretagne at the end of the 18th century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.
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Director: Céline Sciamma

Writer: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Valeria Golino, Adèle Haenel, Noémie Merlant, Luàna Bajrami, Cécile Morel

Year: 2019

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: France

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