A hit at the recent Victoria Film Festival and one of the most acclaimed foreign films of the last year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a quietly passionate, thoughtful, and exquisitely filmed exploration of female desire back in a time when women lacked agency over their own destiny.
|Monday Magazine film reviewer Robert Moyes|
Set in France 250 years ago, the story involves an artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is commissioned to travel by boat to a remote coastal location to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who has recently left the convent. Héloïse is to be married off by her practical mother, and the portrait will be a useful “calling card” to promote her daughter’s beauty and marital availability.
Seething with anger at the prospect of shifting from imprisonment at the convent to the equally confining realm of marriage, Héloïse sabotaged an earlier attempt to have her picture painted. So Marianne has arrived ostensibly as a companion only, and is stealthily executing a portrait as best she can.
Despite being a very talented artist, Marianne can only go so far in a career where only men are taken seriously. So she’s naturally sympathetic to Héloïse’s plight – and eventually becomes much more emotionally engaged as the two women slowly acknowledge the currents of erotic attraction that have begun to swirl around them. And as Marianne reluctantly completes the portrait, it has now become a collaborative act with her lover – but one that ultimately dooms Héloïse to be sent away to an unimaginable life as someone’s wife.
Veteran filmmaker Céline Sciamma directs Portrait with the soul of a poet and the eye of a painter. The film’s crushingly sad romanticism deftly flowers as the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice is woven throughout the back half of the film, both as a ghostly presence in the house and, years later, as the subject of a painting that Marianne has submitted for display at an important salon (albeit under the name of her father).
Portrait wears its feminism lightly, letting the lives of the women – both the two principals, as well as the mother and Sophie the maid – speak for themselves. Suffused with feelings of love and loss and doomed passion, the ethereal and earthy Portrait manages to be an exquisitely rendered period film that nonetheless feels contemporary with its urgent emotionalism. This is a great pleasure to recommend.
The Way Back
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