In 18th century France, young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, a countess’s daughter. However, Marianne must work in secret as Héloïse does not want to pose for the painting, afraid that it will be used to advertise her suitability as a bride.
... drags you towards an unforgettable conclusion.
Evoking the aching silences of Sally Potter’s ‘The Piano‘, ‘Portrait of A Lady On Fire’ is another tale of a stranger adrift on unwelcome shores. Hinting at a bargain with ever-tightening strings, French writer/director Céline Sciamma delivers a wet and bedraggled opening to what becomes an increasingly taut thriller.
Arriving in a house where everything is framed as a whisper, it is unsure whether there is a wedding or a wake in the offing, such is the rift between mother and daughter. Nonetheless, in observing Héloïse by day and painting her likeness by night, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne begins to peel away at the woman beneath.
Like her initial portrait (“not happy but alive”), the two women’s relationship is an entente dis-cordiale. With Héloïse’s arched eyebrows firing off judgements, Marianne must skilfully tack around this island of a woman.
However, whilst the watcher is watching the watched, it is actually the housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) who becomes the thawing influence between them. Whether conceding to a stolen admission or abortively making eye contact with a future she will agonisingly deny, Sophie is the painful reminder of what awaits women in 18th-century France.
As the two women’s friendship becomes increasingly framed by betrayal, Céline Sciamma’s latest ultimately drags you towards an unforgettable conclusion. Where the merest of lights could cause a cold heart to catch fire, ‘Portrait of A Lady On Fire’ becomes that truly, heartfelt depiction of a denial that will stay with you forever.
“Don’t regret. Remember…”
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