Portrait of a Lady on Fire film review: an intimate love story

Noémie Merlant as Marianne and Adèle Haenel as Heloise in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Noémie Merlant as Marianne and Adèle Haenel as Heloise in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

FRENCH film Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an intimate love story between two women that delicately builds piece by piece until their inevitable tragic separation.

In the late 18th century artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adèle Haenel) whose mother intends to marry her off in Milan after the death of her older sister.

However Heloise refuses to be painted so she is told Marianne is a walking companion to accompany her on long rambles to the cliff tops and beaches that surround this isolated castle-like house.

In films about artists it is often obvious that the actor is not really creating the piece of art in question, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire almost feels like a documentary in the way we are immersed in the process of scratchings of charcoal and dabbings of paint.

Absence of a soundtrack makes visceral the diegetic sounds of crackling fire or the wind and the waves, injecting a liveability and freshness into the 1700s setting.

The women are held rigid within the confines of their corsets and bulky dresses, emphasising the societal restrictions and yet demonstrating how they are still able to experience life despite these physical and social limitations.

When Heloise’s mother goes away, the house becomes a safe space where rivalry and status is gone and a new found solidarity between both women and servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami) allows friendship and love to blossom.

But the mother’s eventual return, and completion of the portrait, means the knowledge that there is an end date to this utopia is always present.

The tragedy of the film is not necessarily that of separated lovers, it is that they never even had the chance to live out the full potential of their love story.

THE ESSENTIALS

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (M)

Director: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luana Bajrami

Four stars

Showing as part of Perth Festival Lotterywest Films December 9 to 15, and in cinemas on Boxing Day

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