October 10, 2019

VIFF 2019 | 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Burns Bright

"I believed you braver."
VIFF 2019—French filmmaker Céline Sciamma's burning historical romantic drama about painting and forbidden love is a striking work of female desire. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (aka Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) sensationally recreates its eighteenth-century period setting in a remote seaside mansion during a week where four different women must advance their own motivations.

Starring Noémie Merlant as Marianne, a painter and portrait artist in 1760 France, the evocative film follows her difficult task of painting the combative Héloïse played by a restrained but striking Adèle Haenel. Héloïse's widowed mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), looks to marry her off to a wealthy suitor in Milan after the sudden death of Héloïse's sister.

To seal the deal for Héloïse's impending nuptials, the Countess commissions the titular portrait from Marianne to get approval from the suitor. Alongside them, Luàna Bajrami as Sophie, Héloïse's handmaiden, makes the film of female desire such an illuminating and entertaining story.

Noémie Merlant Adèle Haenel Céline Sciamma | Portrait of a Lady on Fire | VIFF 2019

Sciamma slowly unfolds the sense of drama and desire of the women though secret painting, long walks, and sideways talks about their true feelings. Her sharp writing and direction really highlight the performances and ground the subject matter firmly in today's mind while harkening back to a much more restrictive time.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is such a precisely made period piece almost perfectly emotionally executed. The central performances are exquisite. Sciamma, Merlant, and Haenel all burn bright with their slowly simmering writing, direction, and acting that make the historical setting feel so contemporary. It succeeds beyond the trappings of its historical prestige material.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire screened at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Panorama stream at The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts.

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