Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019)

CELINE SCIAMMA

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

Original title:  Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

, 2019, , , , , Ciné+, , , .   Screenplay by Céline Sciamma.  Cinematography by Produced by Music by , Production Design by Costume Design by .   Film Editing by Boston Film Critics 2019Cannes Film Festival 2019Golden Globe Awards 2019Independent Spirit Awards 2019National Board of Review Awards 2019New York Film Critics Awards 2019Philadelphia Film Critics Awards 2019Toronto International Film Festival 2019.   Washington Film Critics Awards 2019

Late in the eighteenth century, women are pursuing the art of painting under the strictures of the conventions of the time, allowed to practice but limited as to their subjects (like painting male figures, for instance). In a classroom being taught by the skilled and celebrated Marianne (), a student asks her about a haunting painting hanging in her studio and wonders if it has a story behind it, and Marianne answers in the affirmative. This takes the teacher back in her mind to the few months she spent on an isolated island where she was hired to paint the portrait of Heloise (), a young woman who was promised in marriage to a Milanese nobleman. Her mother (an exquisite ), has asked Marianne a strange request, to spend time with Heloise as her companion and paint her secretly at night; her elder daughter committed suicide before being sent off as the unknown gentleman’s bride and she worries that Heloise, in her grief, will do the same. The intensity of the two women’s friendship that develops leads to passion as Marianne’s close observations of this darkly serious but not unreasonable young woman have her fall in love with her both on the canvas and in person. Celine Sciamma’s elegant period piece is a visually stunning effort whose painterly images are the direct expression of her character’s emotions, it recalls Rohmer’s Marquise of O in its marrying sumptuous iconography with the deeply felt but not always verbally expressed longings of its players. Haenel is particularly effective as the object of Marianne’s desire, Sciamma’s careful closeups reveal something mysterious and enchanting in every twitch of her bright eyes or mischievous mouth. The magic of the film’s daring and expressive moments of surrealism (like Marianne having visions of Heloise before painting her) and spontaneity (like the women on the beach breaking out into a chorus of song) bring vitality and joy to a plot that takes very seriously its intent to show women living within the boundaries of what is permitted in their world; there’s more comedy in the narrative’s abortion strand than there is misery, and such elements result in a film that never feels like a lecture.  Instead, what you have is a precisely designed chamber piece that has a perfect blend of deceptively simple drama and indulgent aestheticism.

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