Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Film Review
Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma (screenplay)
Stars: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been set a near-impossible task. She is an artist and has received a commission by an Italian countess (Valeria Golino). She has been asked to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a woman who does not want to be painted. The purpose of the painting is to find a suitable husband for her in Italy and she will not accept her fate. Héloïse lives on an island in Brittany with her mother and one servant. The last artist tasked with finishing the painting left the island with the job incomplete. Marianne takes a different approach and tries to befriend the young woman, pretending she has been hired as a walking companion. When Héloïse’s mother returns to Italy, she leaves the two of them alone on the island, where passions start to stir.
This is an unusual story of a love affair set in 18th century France which avoids many of the clichés. The film is beautifully shot, with the rugged coastline and cliffs playing a substantial part in the story. This is not a calm and forgiving seaside, it is a windswept landscape bashed by the sea and sand.
Adèle Haenel plays Héloïse as a difficult and wistful young woman who can’t find her place in the world. Noémie Merlant plays Marianne as a forthright and strong woman who is trying to make a career for herself. While there are other characters in the film and even some subplots, the emphasis is always on the two women and their time mostly in isolation. The film is two hours long and with such a small storyline, at times it does drag. The filmmakers are trying to achieve something subtle, a believable love story and that requires the slow pace. Once you accept this, there is much to enjoy in the beautiful cinematography and intense performances.