email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on reddit pin on Pinterest

CANNES 2019 Competition

Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

by 

- CANNES 2019: Céline Sciamma puts her name to a magnificent period drama on passionate love, art and the destiny of women, featuring the exceptional acting talent of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel

Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

"Fugere non possum" are the words sung in unison by a number of women arranged on a beach in Portrait of a Lady on Fire [+see also:
trailer
interview: Céline Sciamma
film profile
]
, the splendid new film by Céline Sciamma, marking a first and very successful incursion into the complex genre of the period drama film (following three ultra-modern full-length movies, Water Lillies [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, Tomboy [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Céline Sciamma
film profile
]
and Girlhood [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Céline Sciamma
interview: Céline Sciamma
film profile
]
) which has earned the French filmmaker her first invitation to compete in the Cannes Film Festival. And indeed, it does seem impossible for these women to escape from their destiny, not to mention the isolation of the Breton island where the story unfolds, the highly restrictive social positions of 1770, but also the feelings that bubble away under the civilised surface of 18th century society. So many areas, which the director gives us a few narrative clues about from the outset (“first the outline, then the silhouette; don’t go too fast, take the time to look") in a wonderfully cut prologue which sees Marianne (Noémie Merlant) give a painting lesson, while also posing as the model, to a group of girls who find a picture on the other side of the room which their teacher admits to having painted “a long time ago”, the name of which just so happens to be Portrait of a Lady on Fire

(The article continues below - Commercial information)
Les Arcs November Internal

The story then hurtles us back in time, by way of a flashback, to a boat surrounded by stormy seas, as we follow Marianne’s very physical arrival onto an island where she has been hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the daughter of the house (with Valeria Golino in the role of her mother), in response to a potential suitor in Milan. Over time, in the large, deserted property, negotiated candle in hand, where fires are stoked in every lived-in room of the house, Marianne will come to learn a few secrets as she questions the very young servant of the household (Luàna Bajrami). Firstly, Héloïse’s sister recently died from a clifftop fall with all the markings of a suicide, which led to Héloïse’s removal from her convent. Secondly, the latter is firmly opposed to the idea of the Milan marriage and has already managed to deter one painter. Therefore, as Héloïse isn’t willing to pose, Marianne must attempt to pass herself off as a lady’s companion in order to paint the portrait in secret, studying her model surreptitiously. But the two young women get to know and grow to love one another so deeply that their simmering feelings, so far contained by convention, slowly come to the surface… 

Building upon a highly controlled technique of observation–reaction, and alternating between admirably accurate internal scenes and striking exteriors on the beach and the cliff, the film moves at its own pace, subtly tracing the trajectory of the birth and the fear of desire (against an atmosphere of heat bubbling away beneath the cold) before its final eruption (beautifully sensual and relatively modest), and providing these two lead actresses with exceptional roles. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire also holds a mirror up to the stifled condition of these women (in terms of marriage, abortion, female artists having to exhibit under their father’s name, etc.) and clearly offers no shortage of parallels with modern-day society. Closely resembling the chiselled style of Jane Campion with its wonderfully executed mise en scène and boasting a remarkable Claire Mathon as Director of Photography, the film reaches its full potential in its final part, proving its status as a major work by the well-established, very talented director, Céline Sciamma. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is produced by Lilies Films and co-produced by Arte France Cinéma, alongside Hold Up Films, with international sales managed by mk2 Films.

(Translated from French)

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.