Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Written and directed by Celine Sciamma.

I saw a trailer for this late last year and thought it would be worth my time. Since seeing it last night, I literally can’t stop thinking about this film. Like my last review Jojo Rabbit (2019), I find myself wondering if I’ve seen one of the best movies of my year at the start of January!

In a nutshell, this French period piece sees Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrive on an island off the Brittany coast. Her brief is to act as companion to young noblewoman Heloise (Adele Haenel) by day and paint her portrait by night.  During this time, they discover in each other friendship and love.

Of course, it is far more complicated and nuanced than this, and I found it much more than the sum of its quite straightforward parts. Sciamma’s script won the screenplay award at Cannes last year (as well as the Queer Palm) and it’s easy to see why. It is economical, almost minimal but even in translation, full of subtext and rich in meaning. Apart from being very beautiful, the two leads are incredibly powerful and have great on screen presence. They are ably supported by Luana Bajrami as the young maid Sophie, and Valeria Golino as Heloise’ mother, the Countess, who pines for a better life for both her daughter and herself in Milan.

The cinematography by Claire Mathon is breathtaking – from beautifully framed exteriors on the cliffs and beach to luminous interiors, full of candle and firelight. The costumes designed by Dorothee Guiraud range from the sumptuous to the simple and add a great deal to a film that relies so heavily on themes of art and painting. Like the screenplay, the sound design is also minimal, with very little incidental music. Most of it is diegetic, from within the world of the film – fires crackling, footsteps on floorboards, the ocean breaking on the beach. There is a particularly arresting scene of women around a bonfire singing, which I found especially moving.

Ultimately, this is a love story, a film made by, about and featuring women – there are no major male characters on screen but it does nothing to exclude male audiences. At just over two hours I can see that some people would find it slow but I loved the gradual build and found myself happily immersed in this female world. Overall, Sciamma offers us a quietly elegant and ultimately satisfying movie that takes period drama to the next level.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is currently playing at the State Cinema in Hobart but wherever you are in the world, seek it out! I wholeheartedly recommend it as a wonderful respite to the pace of modern life.