FOUR AND A HALF STARS It's not just clothes that catch fire when a painter is commissioned to do a portrait.
Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel
PERIOD DRAMA, FRENCH LANGUAGE #LADYONFIRE
Remember the name Céline Sciamma. Lovers of French cinema may already know her for contemporary sensations like TOMBOY and GIRLHOOD, however this foray into period drama sets her up as a director of distinction. PORTRAIT is nothing if not magnifique.
Aside from meticulous attention to detail - it’s a story about a painter and every frame resonates with a painter’s visual flair - she also pays close attention to ensuring her stoic characters are not forgotten. Sensual richness distinguishes this film, and the experience of its audience.
Marianne is a portrait painter (more common than you might think in the late 1700s) who has been given a commission by a French widow to paint her daughter, Héloïse. It’s hoped that the portrait will secure the young woman a meaningful marriage in Italy, far from their remote home in Brittany. The catch is that Héloîse must not know what Marianne is doing; she has no intention of moving abroad and has sabotaged previous attempts at portraiture. Thus by day Marianne is her companion and by night she paints in secret.
Further complicating, or perhaps enhancing, the task is Héloïse’s ravishing beauty and Marianne is immediately attracted to her subject. The feelings are reciprocated, romance blossoms and another layer of complication compounds their affair - if Marianne’s portrait is any good, she looses her lover.
Given a conventional treatment, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE would be just another corset romance with a lesbian twist. But it’s not. Sciamma ensures that this stays tightly within the confines of what was once called arthouse cinema and the results are astonishing. She doesn’t put a foot wrong in telling a story about requited love at a time when such things were difficult at best.
Told largely through the terrific performances of its leads, this is a drama that’s light on dialogue, long on visual storytelling. The results are more powerful, more sensual and much more elegant than first realised. This is the kind of film where glimpses keep returning at the most unexpected times, and in most unexpected ways, as only the finest films can. Wether its a memory of a clifftop walk, or a strange, after-dark gathering, the film is enchanting, bewitching, beguiling.
That shouldn’t surprise. After all, PORTRAIT is a portrait about the power of love, one drawn with precision and great affection.