Opening Night and Day Two #FIN2019 — Portrait Of A Lady On Fire review

Having seen the opening night film, Murmur, on a screener in advance—and you can find my review of it here—I indulged in a semi-transgressive act and on Thursday evening instead went to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag one-woman show broadcast on the Cineplex Event Screen from London. It was an astonishing and hilarious performance, and fascinating for anyone interested in how writers adapt a stage production to a series, what makes the transition (many of the jokes, the sister, the guinea pig cafe) and what gets discarded (Joe). 

This year’s opening night party was at the Waegwoltic Club. My first visit to its sprawling grounds—dotted with tennis courts and swimming pools perched in one of the city’s most exclusive neighbourhoods like some colonial relic—it was actually a delightful location to wander around and graze from the nine food stations. I sat in a Range Rover, admired Shan MacDonald’s frock from a distance, and ate my weight in chocolate. I also chatted with a bunch of the familiar, friendly folks who attend the festival on the regular, and met Baljit Sangra, director of the devastating, must-see NFB documentary, Because We Are Girls. I peppered her with questions and probably embarrassed myself with my enthusiasm for her film. 

On Friday, due to life responsibilities, I was only able to see one film, but it’s a winner.  Here’s festival director Wayne Carter presenting it: 

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

A beautiful French film about beautiful French women, Céline Sciamma’s formal period drama melts like butter on the tongue, a lovely if unlikely amalgam of The Piano and Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

This colour does take its time to warm up, as painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on a remote island, expected to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose mother (Valeria Golino) has plans to marry her off to some Milanese gentleman. Héloïse isn’t particularly interested in being painted or married, so Marianne must be surreptitious in her efforts to capture the other young woman’s image while loitering around this large, mostly empty estate with housekeeper, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and going for walks with Héloïse along the rocky shore.

At first, I figured this whole affair would be pretty but inert given the emotional austerity of the opening-act.

But when the painter and the bride-to-be start to acknowledge their secret desires, the film genuinely ignites, and I was all in. It’s all so beautifully composed and lyrical, with music used sparingly but with a totally effective kick.

Sciamma’s visual metaphors are a little too often painfully on the nose, but who can fault her for choosing the most stunning, magnetic performers and lighting them in the most fetching way possible? Merlant is the stand-out, like Emma Watson’s darker, Gallic sister, or a secret Parisienne daughter of Debra Winger’s.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.