Review: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a sumptuous, devastating film

Céline Sciamma’s rapturous French drama explores a love story between two very different 18th-century women


PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Céline Sciamma). 121 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 14). See listing. Rating: NNNNN


On an island near Brittany, in the 18th century, a woman named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives by boat. She is an artist, commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman awaiting marriage. 

Héloïse’s portrait is to be a wedding gift from the groom’s mother (Valeria Golino), whom we know only as the Countess. It will hang in the couple’s home in France, in a place of distinction. It will celebrate Héloïse’s beauty, and symbolize the world into which she is marrying: ornate, expensive and frozen in place.

Marianne is conflicted about this arrangement, but she needs the work and the money. Héloïse is even more conflicted, being actively hostile to the very idea of a portrait. She’s refused even to sit for the other artists – all men – who’ve come to the island, which is why the Countess has engaged Marianne’s services. She tells Héloïse that Marianne is there as a companion, the better to keep her future daughter-in-law from getting too lonely.

And so Marianne and Héloïse are put together to walk the island, talking about nothing in particular, sharing the occasional drink in the kitchen. And the longer they’re in the same space, the more Marianne truly sees Héloïse – of course she does, it’s why she’s there – but Héloïse sees Marianne as well. And it becomes increasingly difficult for these two women to pretend they’re not attracted to each other.

Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) has long been fascinated by sexual fluidity and unexpected connections, though she’s always dealt with them in contemporary milieus. Setting the action in the past allows her to examine questions of privilege and ingrained sexism from a new angle, and to dive into the textures and colours of a less polished era with an almost ravishing visual palette. 

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is an exquisitely realized love story, presented almost entirely from Marianne’s perspective: the film positively swoons with her desire for Héloïse both as a subject and a soul. 

Cinematographer Claire Mathon (Stranger By The Lake, Atlantics) mixes handheld and more formal framing to make this period piece feel immediate and alive there are times when it thrills to the possibility of Héloïse and Marianne’s connection, and times when it locks itself down to wait for them to express their feelings, and we feel as though the movie might explode.

As their relationship grows, the story expands to explore the world around them: a subplot involving a young servant (Luàna Bajrami) speaks volumes about the way women of lower class are regarded there, if they’re seen at all. And there is more, so much more, all conveyed in glances and asides and quiet, resigned apologies. 

Merlant, a lively presence in movies like Return Of The Hero and Paper Flags, creates a wonderful character in Marianne, impatient and practical but also capable of heartbreaking tenderness Haenel, of The Unknown Girl and 120 BPM, gives Héloïse an enigmatic, haughty gravitas that similarly conceals deep reservoirs of feeling – though precisely how deep is something Sciamma withholds until the very last moment. 

What a sumptuous, splendid, devastating film. Please don’t miss the chance to see it in a theatre.

@normwilner

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