Portrait of a Lady on fire (2019) **** Curzon Home Cinema

March 20th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor
Dir: Céline Sciamma | Adèle Haenel, Noemie Merlant | Drama, France 120′
Sciamma is back with a enigmatic and delicate drama that glows like a jewel box in its pristine settings yet feels pure and confident at the same time. Turning her camera from the contemporary (Girlhood and Tomboy) she also shows a talent for classical fare in this latest drama set in a chateau in 18th-century Brittany. Here a member of the Italian upper classes (Valeria Golino) has commissioned a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so she can marry her off to a wealthy suitor abroad.
Rather than risk a male painter becoming too close to her convent-educated offspring, the mother invites artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to be her companion, and she arrives at the seaside location in a boat rowing, almost losing her prepared canvasses during the journey. What develops is a tentative friendship between the women that slowly grows into something more ardent. Intimate glances and long walks lead to candlelit evenings where passion burns over their needlework and literary discussions. Or is Héloïse imagining things?
Isolation is to important as it distances their story from the rest of the world. Sciamma relies on the hush of the sea and some subtle sound design, instead of a formal score. Soon the portrait painting becomes secondary to the girls’ relationship. All this is handled with a lightness of touch and the utmost decorum. And the painting sessions turn from taciturn encounters to warmer and more meaningful tetes a tetes. There are shades of Choderlos de Laclos here and the sensuality is undeniable. A faint eeriness comes into play when Marianne has repeated visions of Héloïse in her white wedding dress – luminous for a while, she then disappears. We’re used to seeing lesbian love affairs in the present day so this hark back to the 18th century is refreshing and entrancing. And their mesmerising on screen chemistry gives the film a life of its own. MT
NOW ON RELEASE | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | 14-25 MAY 2019 | Winner: Best Screenplay
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