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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Film (France 2019), written and directed by Céline Sciamma, 10* out of 10

Awarded the Golden Palm at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful and memorable period film. Céline Sciamma has a very personal female and feminist vision which is also universally human. She is superbly supported by her creative team and an ensemble of four outstanding woman actors, Noémi Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Valeria Golina and Luàna Bajrami. Magnificent cinema.

France 1760. Sitting as a model for her pupils, the painter Marianne (Noémi Merlant) is asked about a painting of hers different in style from the others. It is a “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and while she sits she remembers. On a Breton Island, Marianne first meets the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and then the Comtesse (Valeria Golina) from Milan who has asked Marianne to come for a commissioned painting. The Comtesse explains that the commission is for a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who has been brought the island from the convent where she lived. The portrait is for the future husband of Héloïse chosen for her by the Comtesse who is herself from Milan and left her hometown to marry a French count. The challenge for Marianne is that Héloïse who refuses the marriage also refuses to sit for a portrait. Marianne will spend time with Héloïse observe her surreptitiously and then paint a portrait in secret from memory. Héloïse is told that Marianne has been hired as a companion. As the Comtesse leaves for a few days on a voyage, a tender friendship and more develops between Marianne and Héloïse. They also develop a close bond with Sophie.

Céline Sciamma has written and brilliantly filmed the story of four women temporarily and artificially appearing to be removed from the constraints of the male world around them. But “Fugere non possum”: I cannot flee. The constraints all around them even when the men are not. 

The photography is beautiful and the sound is captured to be carefully authentic - the scratch of charcoal on paper, for instance). The sound is not overlaid with music, yet there is music too, haunting and unforgettable. Here is a tender love story told in pictures and furtive looks as much as in words. And like the sound and the music, some of the visual storytelling lingers with the viewer. The main four woman-actors (Merlant, Haenel, Bajrami, and Golina) are an outstanding ensemble. The development of the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse is beautifully developed. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a haunting, moving, unforgettable film. Céline Sciamma says she is inspired by  Wonder Woman, Titanic and The Piano but she has her own sensual storytelling style.


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