Review | ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Fine, Subtle Portrait of Taboo Love

After contemporary coming-of-age themes, delivered with her own understated style, French writer-director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Girlhood) journeyed to another time and place for her brilliant latest film, awarded as Best Screenplay at Cannes. In France circa the late 18th century, artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a wedding portrait of a beautiful aristocrat fresh out of the convent, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). It’s a simple narrative structure yielding surprisingly rich and moving results, with unabashed feminist overtones. Key scenes include a telling image Héloïse with her dress on fire — prescient of love and fates to come — an abortion scene with the patient lying next to a baby, and a tragically doomed love theme linked to Eurydice. Portrait is a quiet, slow-brewing and uniquely sensual film, spare and minimalist but never cool to the touch. It’s also rare story about the art of painting, detailing the art-making process, marked by prolonged gazing and ultimately meeting of artist-subject, turned intimate and sexual. Early in their relationship, Héloïse asks her lover “Do all lovers think they’re inventing something?” With Portrait, Sciamma has invented a fine and subtle portrait of taboo love. 

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