Film review: ‘PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Despite its late arrival in cinemas in 2019, Portrait of A Lady On Fire was one of the most talked about releases of the year. The attention it’s received is in part due to the fact that it’s simply a quality piece of cinema but also because this meditative art house film is about as far as cinema gets from the crass, cluttered frenzy of the world-crushing superhero movie paradigm.

At first glance the story here seems extremely slender and featherlight. On an isolated island in Brittany in the late eighteenth century, a powerful attraction develops between noblewoman Heloise (Adèle Haenel) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) the woman commissioned to paint her portrait for the man to whom she’s reluctantly betrothed.

Beneath a calm and austere surface there’s a vast reservoir of emotions bubbling away here. Through the subtle back-and-forth of their relationship, their knowing looks and the minimalist, slightly obtuse yet evocative dialogue, Heloise and Marianne create a world of mystery, tension and sensuality. It’s largely through Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant’s wonderfully measured performances that the film is able to convincingly immerse us in their world and in the end give it such heart-wrenching emotion.

This beguiling and hypnotic film is at once very distinct and yet reminiscent of other revered works. With its slow pacing and shadowy, candle-lit interiors the film evokes Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Its images of corseted women battling the elements and an oppressive patriarchal society remind us of Jane Campion’s The Piano while the image of a hooded and aloof Heloise disappearing into the distance recalls Meryl Streep in Karel Reisz’s version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Also, the film’s images are often framed to resemble portraits with some set in the soft candlelight recalling paintings by the Dutch masters.

The film explores a variety of themes such as female friendship, same-sex relationships, feminism, the intertwining of memory and emotion and art as a way of defining and controlling identity. Throughout, the film also evokes the tragic romantic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a tale of all-consuming desire and temptation in which Orpheus led his deceased lover Eurydice out of the underworld but despite being warned not to do so, turned around to see her and condemned her to death. In the myth, Orpheus was at the centre and his gaze was vital. In this film writer/director Celine Sciamma casts Marianne in the Orpheus role and in so doing makes the female viewpoint (something ignored almost as if non-existent in the late eighteenth century) central.

Some filmgoers may find hard it to deal with Portrait’s slow and deliberate pace – there are long sequences where, at least on the surface, very little happens – but those who want to imbibe a superbly shot and intelligently written film that probes intriguing psychosexual territory will be mesmerised by this film.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Drama/ period pieces.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Céline Sciamma.

Release date: 26th Dec 2019.

Running time: 120 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show

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