PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE   (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

(director/writer: Céline Sciamma; cinematographer: Claire Mathon; editor: Julien Lacheray; music: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier/Arthur Simonini; cast: Adèle Haenel (Héloïse), Noémi Merlant (Marianne), Luàna Bajrami (Sophie), Valeria Golino (La Comtesse), Chrystal Baras (La faiseuse d’anges); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Véronique Cayla, Bénédicte Couvreur; Neon; 2019-France-in Italian and French with English subtitles)

Aesthetically pleasing 18th-century period piece drama on desire.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Céline Sciamma (“Girlhood”/”Tomboy”) is the writer-director who tells an aesthetically pleasing 18th-century period piece drama on desire, set in Brittany, in 1770, of an obsessive love between an artist and the subject of the titular painting. The love is built on an erotic female gaze that is returned in kind to the other, and builds to a passionate affair that goes deeper than the sex. It results in a wonderfully accomplished feminist pic telling of a lesbian love between a noblewoman and a commoner, one that gets us thinking about the many different ways women view the world and enjoy sex. The all-female cast makes this love story narrative shake out in a different manner than the way a male director usually views such a queer romance.

French noblewoman (Valeria Golino) has hired a ladies’ companion, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), for her beautiful daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has just come out of a convent and stills feels grief from the loss of her suicidal sister. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is actually an artist that the countess has commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse in secret because her strong-willed daughter refuses to pose for a portrait. The countess wishes to show the portrait to a wealthy prospective husband in Milan as a way of getting him to see his future bride before the arranged wedding takes place. It’s a wedding that Héloïse is not that keen on.

During the day the ladies go for walks, which gives Marianne a chance to intensely gaze at her subject’s face and commit it to memory so she can paint it at night. Héloïse notices how she is being observed, and becomes aware of why only when Marianne is unsatisfied with the half-completed portrait and destroys it. Marianne then confesses her ruse, and Héloïse allows her to openly paint a second portrait. Their relationship blooms. In the second portrait, in a landscape setting, the hemline of the poser’s dress catches fire before it’s quickly put out.

When the countess is satisfied that her daughter will openly pose for the oil painting, she leaves the ladies alone with the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). A subplot develops when the ladies conspire to help Sophie after learning she’s three months pregnant. The solution to the problem is an abortion, which is painted by Marianne.

The female gaze of the woman artist leads to a look that goes deeper than the surface to find what’s real. The result is a sensitive and intelligent film that brilliantly tells how limiting it is for women in a patriarchal society and how there are deeper emotions to navigate even if making beauty an object of both love and art. It’s a film seen through the eyes of an woman artist that leaves us with as much an allure for the mysteries of a woman as in the masculine directed Hitchcock classics of Rebecca and Vertigo. Though this time we see a sexual obsession tale told from a woman’s artistic POV.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was screened at the Cannes film festival to universal acclaim by the critics.   

REVIEWED ON 9/11/2019       GRADE:   A