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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir: Celine Sciamma, France 2019, 122 mins.

Cast: Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Valeria Golino,

Review by Carlie Newman

Available on streaming,

Beautiful cinematography, sensitive performances and a well-written script contribute to a most appealing movie. The main story is set in Brittany in the late eighteenth century. A countess (Valeria Golino) has employed an artist, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). It is intended that the portrait will be sent to a wealthy man in Milan so that he can choose her as his bride.

There is one main difficulty: Heloise does not wish to be married so refuses to be painted. The countess explains that Marianne must paint her daughter secretly. She will need to commit her face to memory and then paint her without Heloise knowing. Heloise believes that Marianne has been brought to her home to be a walking partner and chaperone. There is a sub plot involving the pregnant maid (played by Luana Bajrami) which points up the social realism of the time.

When the countess has to go away for a short time, the two young women become entwined in a relationship. The sexual undertone is palpable. Director, Celine Sciamma knows how to produce an erotic charge and the actresses are more than able to handle the scenes. The developing love story between the women is handled with care so that each scene has its own boundaries. And each one looks like an artist’s picture. The director of photography is also female, Claire Mathon, and she interprets Sciamma’s vision to perfection. The sound and singing also blend in with the themes of the movie and the whole is a most satisfying experience.

However, the film doesn’t progress in quite the way you expect. It is a movie made for adults and there are no easy answers to the dilemmas faced by the females here.

Watching the film is mesmerising. It looks so beautiful and the emotion comes through visually as well as through the characters. A taut direction and sensitive portrayals of the two main parts has the effect of leaving the film imprinted on one’s mind. As the former cinema audience languishes in quarantine, you can escape for a couple of hours by watching this film.