Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire


An artist hired to paint a portrait of a bride-to-be discovers that the subject refuses to pose. She is not just camera shy, or easel shy, she is fundamentally opposed to the idea of being painted. The French had their attitudes, even in 1790. As it turns out, there is more to her reticence than meets the eye. The painting is her carnal image, crafted for the revolutionary period equivalent of The oil and canvas will be sent to her wealthy Milanese nobleman suitor in the hopes of the family regaining the status that was once the legacy of the long gone Count.

The angry and resistant muse, a challenge at first, turns to a torrid love affair when her true motives, and those of her redoubtable mother The Countess, are disclosed. Heloise is not just fighting for her rights as a human, she is settling the score for her deceased sister, the woman who died resisting male chauvinist family duty.

The lure of the cliffs over the sea is irresistible, and the camera makes sure we know it. The action flows, richly languorous, teetering between the void of death and the majestic beauty of the wind and rock. The interior scenes do not as much move as they grow from place to place, much of the action taking place at the same speed as one posing for an oil painting.

The two leads, Noemi Merlant as Marianne and Adele Haenel as Heloise, are so frightfully erotic all we want to do is stare at them. The painter has the luxury of being her own person, a rarity at the time. She was trained by her father and becomes an accomplished art teacher. Her arrival in the countess’ chateau starts off threatening and ends up in a duel that can only have one winner. To be thrown out of the evil establishment intact is the most one can hope for.

In the course of the two acknowledging their love, the sub-plot comes and goes like a dream. The maid Sophie is expecting a child out of wedlock. Of course, the two women rally to save her from what would be a death sentence or worse. In the course of that they are involved in a fantasy-like meeting of women in the deepest, darkest woods. Dancing around the fire, Heloise’s dress catches on fire, quickly smothered by her sisters

The dream reoccurs with a wedding dress instead, the betrothal symbol threatening to burn the soul from the younger daughter of the estate, as it did the older. Although the dream is terminated when the two rebellious women speak out through the final version of the painting, the portrait of the woman on fire remains.

Told as a memoir with a most effective use of history and reflection, director Celine Sciamma took home the Best Screenplay award at 2019 Cannes. She works with Cesar nominated cinematographer Claire Mathon to create a mythological dreamscape in which the muse and the artist become one.

Rating: 9/10

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