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TIFF 2019 Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire has multiple meanings in this film.  It is not only the name of an actual portrait painted of one of its protagonists, but also points towards the smouldering, burning desire between the two leads, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

The film starts with Marianne making a perilous trek with her painting gear in tow, having been hired by a widow to paint a portrait.  This portrait is to depict her only surviving daughter, the other having recently died, in advance of her arranged marriage to a man from Milan.  A previous attempt to get this portrait painted failed as Héloïse refused to pose.  Marianne is instead asked to pose – as a companion instead of a painter,  and study Héloïse covertly in order to compose her portrait.  However what begins as largely silent trips along the cliffs near the family home slowly turns into a passionate and forbidden romance between the two women.

Winner of both the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay awards at Cannes, this is writer-director Céline Sciamma‘s fourth feature film.  Alongside cinematographer Claire Mathon, the two craft a film that is often breathtakingly beautiful.  Framed by crashing waves or crackling flames of a fireplace, the natural environments of an 18th century home make for a nuanced backdrop for this romance.

Merlant and Haenel have a searing chemistry that is hard to deny.  Several scenes here are simply about a gaze – a look, a glance or a study of one woman to another, or one subject to a painter.  Lesser actors may have fallen victim to the intensity required but each performs with a magnitude that is hard to match.  While their romance may have been unconventional in the 18th century, its’ completely grounded here.

Lady of a Portrait on Fire is a slow burn.  The romance develops quite gradually, but that doesn’t make it less passionate.  It all culminates in a conclusion which is particularly satisfying. One can’t help but think there is an element of Call Me By Your Name here, but it’s not to the film’s distraction or detriment.  Instead, you’re left with a whole picture, where the photography, the music and the acting are likely to linger just like the love between these two women.

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