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IFI French Film Festival 2019 Review - PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Portrait of a Lady on Fire review
In 18th century France, an artist is tasked with painting a secret portrait of a young noblewoman.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Portrait of a Lady on Fire poster





The underlying eroticism that can be found in much gothic storytelling comes to the fore in writer/director Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It's a gothic romance that holds to its tradition for much of its running time, keeping its passions suppressed before ripping away its bodice for a celebration of forbidden sensual pleasures indulged away from the disapproving eyes of society.

The setting is a remote island off the French coast in the late 18th century. Arriving on the island is Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter who has benefitted from her artist father's reputation, yet longs to escape his shadow and have her work recognised for its own worth. She's tasked with painting a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young noblewoman set to be wed to the Italian aristocrat her sister was engaged to before she took her own life by leaping off a cliff.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire review


This is no ordinary assignment for Marianne, who is instructed by Héloïse's Countess mother (Valeria Golino) that she is under no circumstances to reveal to her daughter that she is there to paint her portrait, as she fears this may cause her to replicate her late sister's actions. Thus, Marianne befriends the initially shy Héloïse, constructing a portrait from observations she makes of her subject - the blueness of her eyes, the way her hands fold across one another, the shadows that rest like water in the nape of her neck. Spending so much time staring at Héloïse stirs up lustful feelings in Marianne, and when the Countess leaves for a trip to the mainland, the two young women are left alone. And while the cat's away...

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire owes as much to gothic horror as gothic romance. Given Héloïse's fragile emotional state, there's a chilling sense of foreboding dread running through much of the film. Sciamma recalls Hitchcock's Rebecca through the presence of Héloïse's dead sister, who appears at times as an apparition to Marianne, and the sense that she's fated to follow her fate, while Vertigo is echoed in Marianne's initial distanced pursuit of Héloïse. When the latter rushes toward a cliff edge, it's impossible not to think of Kim Novak plunging herself into the San Francisco bay. I won't reveal Héloïse's ultimate fate, but I can say that throughout the film I brought an assumption that things wouldn't work out well for her, a burden of centuries of tragic heroines too beautiful for this world. A sequence involving local women chanting as part of a reverse fertility ceremony plunges us firmly into the realm of folk horror.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire review


Portrait's setting feels recognisable to anyone familiar with gothic fiction. We sense that we've been here before, but that we're seeing a different side of an oft told tale, as though the Countess's trip to the mainland had previously been the story we're familiar with, and Sciamma thought to herself, "But what might have happened between the young women she left behind." Sciamma's film plays like a concocted prequel to some classic piece of gothic fiction, like how Michael Winner imagined the backstory of Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw' with his intriguing if failed 1971 experiment The Nightcomers.

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Sciamma's female gaze here is not unlike Hitchcock's. Her camera builds up the same infatuation for Héloïse in the audience that Marianne develops, introducing her in snippets like a mythical figure, or the shark from Jaws. The first we see of Héloïse is a portrait drawn by a previous artist, but her face has been scrubbed away. Then, in a magical piece of visual trickery, we believe we're about to see her as the camera tracks the hem of her green gown, only to reveal the dress is being worn not by Héloïse but merely carried by her maid (Luàna Bajrami). Our first glimpse of the real Héloïse is another Vertigo reference, the camera tracking into the back of her head, where her hair is tied up in a knot twinned with the one we feel tightening in our stomachs. Then her face, but half concealed with a scarf, as though she's about to rob a stagecoach. By the time we're granted a full view of Héloïse's visage, we've been absorbed into Marianne's mind. Regardless of your sexuality or whether Haenel is "your type", at that moment the power of cinema has made her the most beautiful woman in the world, and the world beyond the screen has plunged itself into darkness to allow us to appreciate her without distraction.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire review


The structure of Portrait of a Lady on Fire reflects that of many relationships. It begins with intrigue, leads to infatuation, followed by sated sensual desires, but thankfully this dalliance is cut short before it has time to grow stale. It ends with two codas, the first of which is incredibly romantic and affecting, but the second is a step too far, a nod to Greta Garbo in the final shot of Queen Christina, crudely illustrating what the audience has already deciphered for itself. It's an unfortunate closing misstep in a film that otherwise confirms Sciamma as a powerfully intoxicating filmmaker.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in UK/ROI cinemas February 28th.




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