Current Issue #487

Film Review:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Writer/director Celine Sciamma’s first historical costume drama won this year’s Queer Palm at Cannes, and it’s an intense, headily sensual epic with a sometimes overcooked feel and oodles of Euro-artiness.

A surprising choice as a yuletide release at the cinemas, this is mostly visually lush and often features strong work from its cast, although that willfully over-the-top aspect tends to drag you out of the increasingly raunchy action.

At the end of the 18th Century we meet painter and teacher Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who recounts the story of a painting called (what else?) Portrait Of A Lady On Fire to her timid students. Then, some years before, we see her arriving on an isolated island in Brittany to surreptitiously do a portrait of Héloïse (revealed as played by Adèle Haenel, an ex of Sciamma’s).

Héloïse is to be forcibly married off to the almost-unseen husband of her late sister, who apparently jumped off a nearby cliff, and she thinks that Marianne has turned up to merely be a companion for long walks in the sea air. Héloïse’s mother (portrayed by Valeria Golino, all up the best-known cast member here) then leaves for Italy and, in her absence, Marianne can no longer lie to Héloïse about why exactly she’s there. And the two women, of course, can no longer deny their mutual swoony attraction.

With nothing to do with Henry James’ The Portrait Of A Lady (just in case you were wondering), this offers a beautifully quiet and poised performance from Merlant, although Haenel at times seems to think she’s in Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad, and therefore stands around expressionlessly and offering really… really… long… pauses in between her line-readings.

Nevertheless, there’s still much here to impress, and when the two protagonists finally kiss, Sciamma pulls out all the stops, with a degree of heat and intimacy befitting the film’s title.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (M) is in cinemas from 26 December

DM Bradley

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