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Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

February 14, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is an 18th century French artist who is brought by boat to an island where she has been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), ahead of her arranged marriage to a Milanese businessman.

But Héloïse is resisting the marriage and doesn’t want to be painted, having already worn out the patience of another painter by refusing to show her face, so Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) has hired Marianne to do the portrait in secret.

And so begins the passionate, burning affair at the centre of the gorgeous Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which already landed a spot on my list of the best movies of last year and is finally arriving in theatres after making a splash at Cannes and TIFF.

Marianne accompanies this isolated young woman for walks during the day, acting merely as a hired companion, before drawing her late at night from memory. She studies her closely and sketches her in secret, her true intentions kept as hidden as their desires for each other. While the sheltered Héloïse acts distant at first, she craves the company of Marianne, and their relationship soon blossoms into something much deeper, as repressed feelings burst to the surface.

The latest from French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, whose 2011 film Tomboy remains one of the best explorations of gender identity, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a highly sensuous and beautifully filmed period piece, rich with longing glances and simmering romantic tension. This is heightened by Claire Mathon’s immaculate cinematography. Every shot of the film is like a painting, with the actors often framed in the centre of the screen, and the light hitting their faces at just the right angles.

Music is used sparingly but powerfully and symbolically at several points in the film, representing a sort of freedom that Héloïse is only starting to know. There is no score, but rather diegetic uses of music that come in at a few key moments, with many scenes instead being underscored by sounds of rolling waves or the crackling of a fire in the background, and others set to the sounds of silence, moments that are deafening in terms of what is being left unsaid.

There is a lot that is left unsaid at first between Marianne and Héloïse before they allow their emotions to spill out, but the arranged marriage provides a fast approaching cut-off date. While Marianne being hired to paint the portrait is the very thing that has brought them together, the very act of her painting threatens to tear them apart, and the painting itself is the very thing that will allow Héloïse to be given away to marriage. Is Marianne freeing her, then, by giving her a reprieve from this insular world and allowing her to act out her desires, or is she always simply in the process of letting her go to someone who has never even seen her and inevitably won’t really see her? We are left to ponder this.

Does their passion burn so deep precisely because they know it won’t last; or, rather, because it can’t last due to a society that won’t allow them to be together? Are the many glances shared between them those of lovers wanting to keep the passion burning, or those of poets who would rather keep the memory of it alive instead? Are the final scenes about regret or remembering, or both? I’ve seen the film twice now, and upon second viewing all of these emotions only grow more intense and more poignant.

I keep finding myself thinking about what a haunting, beautiful, and heartbreaking film Sciamma has made. The performances by Merlant and Haenel are excellent, with palpable chemistry between them, and the final moments when the film reaches a crescendo are breathtaking. Like all great art, Portrait of a Lady on Fire leaves us staring in awe at its gorgeous, immaculately composed surfaces, pondering over what is being reflected back at us.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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