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MOVIES: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (LFF 2019) - Review

There are few films that are as arguably perfect as Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a subtle, nuanced masterpiece set during the 18th century on an isolated island in Brittany, France. It takes delight in bringing the classics to life on screen, framing the backdrop of a forbidden romance between a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who has just lost her sister and is about to be forced into an arraigned marriage with a man whom she has never met, and a painter – Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who herself is facing a moral dilemma: she has been told that she has to paint in secret and not tell her subject that she is being painted, forcing her to work off memory alone and keep her real purpose a secret until the end of her time in Héloïse’s mansion.

But fate has a way of making things complicated and both women become friends, bonding over cards and music. Their characteristics, flaws and strengths alike, are plenty in this film and Merlant and Haenel are able to convey them to the audience to the point where they will feel like they know the characters as well as the actors, and by portraying them both in a way that opts for both rule-breaking in some ways and full of restraint in the others, creating a subtle feel to them where nothing about the film feels heavy handed. There are moments of joy in the character’s lives where you can tell the passion is clearly there, and then replaced by tragedy, emotions run thick and fast in the characters when they realise what they have cannot last forever.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels at home in an art museum and not just because of its subject matter, the commonly used expression ‘every shot could be a painting’ has never been more appropriate, especially given the film’s subject matter. Merlant manages to make shots even as simple as watching her character paint interesting, and the beautiful colours make even her colour palette that she uses fascinating. The cinematography is provided by Claire Mathon, who enables Sciamma to bring across exactly what she is trying to tell to the screen.

The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice casts a heavy shadow over Portrait of a Lady on Fire, using it as a backdrop for means of character’s self-discovery. The different interpretations of the mythology that are discussed between the two and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) illustrate where the characters stand; Sophie believes that Orpheus looked back at Eurydice because he was selfish, whilst another perspective raised is that he wanted to, by looking back, keep ahold of everything good about Eurydice, back when she was young and there were nothing but happy memories, and it’s further suggested that she could have even told him to look back at her.

Avoiding convention where possible, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is truly one of a kind period romance that is hard to compare to anything else, it’s truly a one of a kind experiences that left me wanting to revisit it as soon as I had finished. The emotional impact is powerful, especially in the turbulent final act, and it manages to show how effortlessly Sciamma moves between genres, switching from the awkwardness of Tomboy and the brashness of Girlhood to something that is more romantic and classical, yet not afraid to be open to expression - and you'll be in love with the film long before a beautiful singalong scene on the beach during a bonfire leaves a mark.

The second half of the film is where the drama typically escalates but never to the point where it breaks the audience’s immersion, as the crowd will be fully invested in the characters by that point, tapping into universal themes that anyone can connect with. First love is brought up throughout the drama as something that Héloïse is yet to experience, and the freedom of your own choice is one of the film’s key themes with self-discovery linking them both together. Sciamma rarely wastes a second of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, packed to the brim with rich, complex storytelling that will leave the audience complete and utterly breathless.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is playing at the London Film Festival this year. You can find the trailer here.

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