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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire ****

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Director: Céline Sciamma

Country: France

Since taking Cannes by storm, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has set critics alight the world over. Taking Best Screenplay home from the festival – as well as the much-coveted Queer Palm – the film was also nominated for a Golden Globe and countless Césars, of which it took home Best Cinematography before its star Adèle Haenel and director Céline Sciamma reached international headlines for storming out of the ceremony when controversial filmmaker Roman Polanski won the Best Director prize. With all this press behind it, the film was finally released in the UK this weekend.

Marianne (Merlant) is a young painter employed by an Italian noblewoman (Golino) to surreptitiously paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Haenel), which is to be sent to a Milanese suitor who had been poised to marry her now-deceased sister. The family is counting on his wealth to keep them afloat, but the benefactor will only agree to the match if he likes the portrait. Héloïse, however, refuses to sit for it, rebelling against her lack of choice over the matter. Marianne poses as a walking companion, who takes her to the beaches that surround the lofty house in Brittany, in order to study her and transfer what she sees onto canvas later in the day. But as the two begin to forge a deep bond, Marianne finds it very difficult to continue lying to the girl she is quickly falling for.

The film’s most striking feature is its luscious cinematography, which beautifully captures the wildness of the North French Coast, as the wind-whipped sea crashes onto the rugged coastline against gloriously blue skies. With many of its key scenes taking place with the roaring sea crashing behind them, the drama of their location captured so richly on screen imbues this relationship with an almost religious quality. Even indoors, the rich colours of their simple but succulent dresses burst from the screen looking more like a perfume advert than a movie. Or a portrait.

Though most of the film could pass for an HD version of Dogme 95, its sparing use of diegetic music exquisitely underpins some of the movie’s key scenes. As the women of the island gather to celebrate around a bonfire, they break into song with one of the haunting pieces of clannish choral music you’ll ever hear, while a full orchestra playing Vivaldi in the final scene makes for one of the film’s most moving moments.

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel both give remarkable performances, with the latter typifying the very meaning of enigmatic. Their chemistry is palpable and as the relationship progresses, its increasing intensity is like watching two electromagnets hurtling toward each other. Sciamma is known for the subtleties of her work – just watch Water Lilies or her masterpiece Tomboy for evidence of that – but while this is compelling from a character perspective, it’s not so much when talking of the narrative.

There’s no doubt this has an interesting hook. The conflict posed between the two characters should have been enough to propel the film multiple times around a rollercoaster, but instead it falters just at the bottom of its first drop, caring more for sexual tension than telling a story. While it says much about the female gaze – both as painter and painted, watcher and watched – that doesn’t stop it from sagging in its final act. Gothic touches like ethereal visions of Héloïse in a wedding dress and seeing the pair scrambling across clifftops like the Brontës on the moors are visual delights within a beautiful film, but its eventual denouement is unsatisfying and its eventual climax more like a waddle than an elegant leap past the finishing line.



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