Portrait Of A Lady On Fire review — Passion simmers then burns

Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma | 122 min | On Demand

It screened at last year’s FIN Atlantic International Film Festival, and now this gorgeous French romantic drama has finally arrived in Halifax cinemas. Céline Sciamma’s formal period film melts like butter on the tongue, a lovely if unlikely amalgam of The Piano and Blue Is The Warmest Colour—another French film about two women falling in love, but freighted with a lot more controversy, one Sciamma has both defended and derided.

This colour takes its time to warm up. 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 married or painted, 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.

The film deftly examines and indulges the female gaze — again and again we see Héloïse through the eyes of Marianne, the observed and the observer, though Héloïse reminds us that as we are watching, she’s looking back. We’re drawn into the sapphic romance, and this exchange of observation, slowly but inexorably in a way very few films, French or otherwise, accomplish. The almost complete absence of men on screen means when a dude does show up, he’s an entirely unwelcome invader.

The opening act hides the passion to come with a whole lot of emotional and narrative austerity.  It challenges the audience with its reserve, and you wouldn’t be blamed for wondering whether the picture was ever going to get interesting. It’s when the painter and the bride-to-be start to acknowledge their secret desires for each other that it genuinely ignites — the beautifully composed cinematography and lyrical content converge, with score and diegetic music used sparingly but with an effective kick.

Sciamma’s visual metaphors are a little too often on the nose, but there are also a number of lovely touches — the juxtaposition of two women in profile against the ocean, three figures rising in unison from the long grass, a young woman in pain on a bed while a baby touches her face — these are remarkable, breathtaking moments. And no one should fault Sciamma 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 Gallic sister, or Debra Winger’s secret Parisienne daughter.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire opens Friday, February 28 at Park Lane Cinemas in Halifax

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.