Portrait of A Lady on Fire
Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Valeria Golino, Luana Bajrami
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…subtle and sensuous French art movie…
In previous eras, women were not expected to become great painters and they were often systematically kept away from career opportunities in such fields. We will never know how many fine artists were lost through this exclusion. In this subtle and sensuous French art movie, the passions and the longings of an 18th Century woman painter are delicately explored. Director Celine Sciamma (Girlhood), who also wrote the screenplay, shows great skill and empathy in bringing out both the sensibility of the period and the complex nature of attachment and thwarted desire.
We open with the heroine, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) setting out in a boat destined for a remote island where she will receive a strange commission. When the box containing a precious blank canvas goes overboard, she dives after it neatly demonstrating her life and death commitment to her craft.
On the island, she meets a Comtesse (veteran Italian actor Valeria Golino) who is in the process of arranging a marriage for her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The never-seen suitor requires a portrait of his intended bride and Marianne is there to paint it.
Immediately she realises that Heloise does not want to be painted, in fact she seems distinctly uneasy about the whole arranged/proposed marriage. Slowly Marianne coaxes her into posing.
As the portrait sittings progress, interspersed with long walks on the beach, Heloise goes from sullen to coquettish. We begin to wonder if there is something more between the two women.
Supporting their friendship is young maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who, in a different way, also suffers from isolation and a dissatisfaction with a woman’s lot. When the Comtesse goes away to further the marriage negotiations, she leaves Heloise and Marianne with an ultimatum that they must get the portrait finished by her return.
Sciamma approaches her main themes quietly, even obliquely. The film is slow, sometimes languorous, but this suits the slow-burning attraction that is kindled between the women. This is decidedly a women’s film, focusing almost exclusively on female feelings (the men are a distant source of demands or problems). The word smouldering is usually reserved for bodice-ripping romances, but here it is, le mot just.