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Ali Sorokin
Ali Sorokin

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire(2019)

France, 1770. Marianne, a painter, is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left the convent. Héloïse is a reluctant bride to be and Marianne must paint her without her knowing. She observes her by day, to paint her secretly.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire(2019)


The film, which takes place over the course of only a couple of weeks in the year 1770, tells the story of a young painter in France. Artist Marianne has been tasked with painting the portrait of Heloise, a woman living an isolated island in Brittany, and about to enter into the sacrament of marriage.

The challenge is, Heloise has refused to sit for a portrait for every other artist who has made an attempt. Marianne must then spend time with Heloise during the day, commit her image to memory, and paint the woman at night in private if she wishes to complete her assignment.

Opening with a shot of a white screen, Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins with an empty canvas. A hand, trembling, hovers above it. All the promise of life lies on that blank page, ready to be filled. With her latest film, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) tells the story of an eighteenth-century woman artist commissioned to secretly paint the portrait of another woman, destined but unwilling to be wed. Between the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), her subject, love soon blossoms.

On a windswept island in late18th century France, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives to undertake hercommission to secretly paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).Héloïse, however, has been brought back from convent life to be married,against her will. As the two women become more acquainted with each other,attraction grows between them as they navigate their feelings.

The story focuses on a portrait artist, Marianne, played by Noemie Merlant who travels to an isolated island to paint reluctant subject Heloise, played by Adele Haenel. The film follows their reluctant friendship as it develops into something more during a time-period when homosexuality was taboo. It is a film of stolen glances, suggestive dialogue and small but monumentally significant moments.

This great chemistry and tense plot is often paired with some well-staged scenes and fantastic cinematography. The sparse rooms come alive when portraits are painted, the harsh coastline also equals freedom for the pair and the titular scene itself is one of vivid colour in darkness. It is not often I comment on this sort of aspect of film but here it makes an impact.

The time is the late 18th century, the dawn of the Romantic era, when a young painter named Marianne, played by Noemie Merlant, gets called to a remote wave-battered island off Brittany. She's been commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise, played by Adele Haenel, who's been pulled from a convent in order to marry the Milanese fiance of her dead sister. There's just one problem - Heloise refuses to pose. Marianne must paint her on the sly while pretending to have been hired as her personal companion. As the two stroll the beaches and cliffs, Marianne tries to memorize the features of the fast-walking Heloise, a proud, angry woman who resents being shipped off to an Italian man she knows nothing about.

Such big-souled yearning for independence is something Marianne can identify with. Her own artistic career is being held back by being a woman. Their connection grows ever deeper as the worldly Marianne introduces her muse to pleasures like harpsichord music, and Heloise wants the painter to grasp the difference between a portrait that captures what someone looks like and one that captures who they are.

Bit by bit, the two grow more and more charged with the desire that we wait to burst into flame. And it does. "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire" is erotic, but not in the male-gazy (ph) way of movies like "Blue Is The Warmest Color," where the sex scenes seemed to exist more for the audience than for the characters. Although there is a touch of nudity, Sciamma's female gaze is subtle, restrained, from the lingering way Marianne studies the flesh tone surrounding Heloise's ear to the dazzling moment - I won't spoil it - when Marianne does a self-portrait in a book she's lent Heloise.

Héloïse, the eponymous Lady, is a difficult subject. When modelling for her portraits, she refuses to be merely a depicted object and instead demands more of the images created in her likeness. In chasing one portrait painter away and in repeatedly challenging Marianne (with whom Héloïse later forms a relationship), the young woman fights for her portraits to say something true of who she is.

After Heloise refused to pose for the last artist, a man who left without completing the portrait, the Countess dispatched Marianne, who happens to be the daughter of the man who painted her own marriage portrait for the union which took her away from Milan to the remote French hamlet she seemingly disdains. Through her children, she has managed to secure a future which will also restore her to the life she had been forced to abandon. As Marianna wins the trust of the introverted Heloise, the two women find they share a growing attraction to one another.

Criterion releases the Neon-owned title in 1.85:1 with 5.1 Surround, and the new 4K digital master retains the painterly frames of Claire Mathon (Atlantics, 2019; Stranger By the Lake, 2013). For extra features, the disc includes a new conversation between Celine Sciamma and film critic Dana Stevens, new interviews with Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel, an interview with cinematographer Claire Mathon from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, as well as am interview from 2019 with artist Helene Delmaire, who created the portraits for the film. 041b061a72


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