SPOILER-FREE Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

This French film (in limited release in the U.S.) was runner-up at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; the South Korean film- Parasite- was the winner. It is written/directed by a woman (Celine Sciamma) and focuses on the love between two women living in 18th century France- an independent/well-traveled painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and a noblewoman educated in a convent, Heloise (Adele Haenel). It also has much to say about being a female artist, as well as the power of bonds formed between women (as friends across social classes). Through research, Sciamma discovered that there were hundreds of women who not only posed as models- they were also painters in this time period.

Marianne travels to the remote island of Brittany where she has been hired by La Comtesse (model turned actress Valeria Golino- now in her mid-50s) to paint a portrait. The subject will be her daughter, Heloise, who is betrothed to a nobleman in Italy; this stranger will marry her if he likes the picture. This was commonly done in this time; in S3 E6 of The Tudors (Search for a New Queen), Henry VIII has Hans Holbein- the most famous portrait artist of that time- paint a potential spouse, Anne of Cleves. There was a painter who came before Marianne, but his work was unfinished; Heloise refused to pose. La Comtesse says that the work must be done in secret; Heloise is told that Marianne is a companion for walks. Marianne settles into a small parlor on the first floor w/ her supplies; she learns a bit more about the situation from a young maid in the household, Sophie (Luana Bajrami).

This is an unique film that has been loved by many critics; the theater was mostly filled when my friend and I saw it last weekend. Time is taken to build up the characters and move the story forward; it has a powerful payoff. I was surprised to be feeling emotional in the last act; I’ve seen many films, but not quite like this! There is no musical score, aside from one song. As several critics noted, every shot looks like a painting. The co-leads seem to be opposites, at first, w/ Marianne as the dominant (more interesting) character. In time, they are seen as equals; both are strong-willed individuals who chafe against the limitations placed upon them. The actors have terrific chemistry together! The love scenes are done in a sensitive manner; this is the (rare) female gaze in cinema. There is also much natural beauty to admire- ocean waves, towering cliffs, and untouched beaches.

3 thoughts on “SPOILER-FREE Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

  1. I’d totally pay that. But my assumption is that Star Wars will monopolize 3/4 of the screens here until January — unless it’s a total flop.

    Like

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