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Review by Travis Cragg
Writer-director Céline Sciamma is not a name that many people have heard of, and unless you’ve been a regular at the French Film Festival, or binge the World Movies channel, you may not be familiar with her work (which includes Tomboy, Girlhood and writing My Life as A Courgette/Zucchini).
Hopefully that public level of awareness changes with Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to the coastal dwelling in Brittany of La Comtesse (Valeria Golina), who has commissioned her to do the wedding portrait of Eloise (Adèle Haenel). Trouble is, Eloise is not all that enthusiastic about her upcoming nuptials, and is therefore reluctant to participate in the preparations. Marianne is therefore presented to Eloise as a companion, and instructed to try and create the artwork through careful and inobtrusive observations. The two women develop a bond that grows stronger as they start to trust each other.
Not wanting to sound exaggerated or effusive, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my absolute favourite movie of 2019. It destroyed me emotionally, but in a good way, the kind of way where you feel absolutely drained at the credit roll but so appreciative that you experienced it.
The movie is just beautiful in every sense. The script is the main jewel, and it is easy to see why it won Best Screenplay (as well as the Queer Palm) at this year’s Cannes Festival. Anyone who has experienced the thrills and heartache of a first intense love will be thrown back in time emotionally whilst watching this.
And then Sciamma builds on the script she has created with stunning cinematography, exquisite costumes and set design. Not to mention a pair of actresses who suck you deep into this world of obsession, beauty, flirtatiousness and pain without you even knowing it until towards the end, (when you find yourself crying, stunned, overwhelmed, or quite possibly all three).
I’ve personally been a fan of Haenel for a few years now, through various French films where she has managed to captivate me through a diversity of different characters (headstrong and closed in Les Combattants; impulsive and careless in In The Name Of My Daughter; strident and committed in BPM – all films you should track down), and she has never been better than she is here. I felt myself falling in love with her just as much as Marianne was.
As a cinematic exploration of desire, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exquisite masterpiece.