Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Title: A Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Release Date: September 18, 2019
Director: Céline Sciamma
Production Company: Lilies Films | Arte | Hold Up Films

In 18th-century France, a young artist named Marriane (Noémie Merlant) travels to a remote island in Brittany.  Her commission is to paint a portrait of the aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent as a betrothal gift to a nobleman in Milan. The problem is that Héloïse does not want to pose for the portrait so Marriane must pretend to be her companion and observe her features when she can.

Héloïse mourns the death of her sister and resents having to take her place marrying the nobleman and losing her relative autonomy in a convent.  Marriane has a great amount of independence and outspokenness for a woman of her time and the two begin to bond.  They also spend time with a third major character, the unflappable house maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and the film as a great number of scenes of women just enjoying one another’s company, something we don’t see too much of in film.

Not to get to spoilery, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Marriane and Héloïse’s relationship grows into a romantic one.  They make the best of the time they have and there is also much yearning for more. The acting performances of the three leads are magnificent and the film is gorgeous.

One stand out scene occurs on a beach by a bonfire (the scene that gives the film it’s title) where a group of Breton women we’ve never seen before (and never see again) begin singing and performing as if they were in The Revels.  It’s such a stunning moment in a movie that is largely very quiet with very few characters on screen.

Rating:  ****

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