Film Preview: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Reviewer: Rich Jevons

Director: Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature is a costume drama set in 1770s Brittany. It depicts painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) on a mission to produce a portrait of Héloȉse (Adèle Haenel). This is for Héloȉse’s unknown husband-to-be in Milan at her mother’s request. But the subject has to be deceived by Marianne into thinking that the visitor is her walking companion. This is no easy task as her sister recently threw herself off the Brittany cliffs.

There is no melodrama here, just pure but subdued and subtle passion. Héloȉse has just come out of a convent so the music at Mass and Marianne’s loan of a book is a breath of fresh air, with this being quite literal on their coastal walks. Héloȉse’s initial shyness and alienation is slowly and quietly broken through by Marianne who is open about her comparatively simple and free life.

Eventually she even gives up the pretence and admits she is a painter. At this point she shows Héloȉse the portrait she has made in secret to the subject’s dislike and it is destroyed with Héloȉse surprisingly agreeing to sit formally. A love affair between painter and sitter ensues with some steamy but tender sex and post-sex scenes. So often lesbianism is sensationalised on film but here it is depicted quite naturally and unflinchingly. Elsewhere in the narrative, servant girl Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) has an abortion and Sciamma does not shy away from filming this with no holds barred and no shame either. However things have to come to an end, with Marianne leaving and Héloȉse set to go to her Milanese marriage. The denouement is poignant and beautiful with Marianne seeking out a portrait of  Héloȉse with child and then at a classical concert. The latter is something Héloȉse could never have dreamed of doing in her previous life either in the convent or her family house in Brittany.

Claire Mathon’s cinematography is suitably painterly with a loving artful touch to each frame, while Dorothée Guiraud’s costumes give this period drama a real sense of history and added realism. This is very much a feminist film but not in any obvious or predictable way: Sciamma is too clever for that. The director therefore does not alienate, instead we identify with both lead characters, willing for their freedom even if it’s never found.

It is a cathartic film with Héloȉse overcoming the tragedy of her sister’s death and both women finding true love, if fleetingly. If you enjoy period dramas you will not be disappointed; or if you just like a tale well told there is a strong narrative at work here too.

Reviewed at Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds on 14th February.

On general release in UK from 28th February 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Sensual & Subtle

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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