“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a starkly affecting work by Céline Sciamma. The film is a study of art, erotic love and obsession that slowly builds into a vivid and impactful work.
The film is one of the few that shows what if feels like to create, the curve of a brush that mimics the movement of the body and oil paint turned into flesh. The many intriguing works in the film were painted by Hélène Delmaire and were shown in a Paris exhibition last year.
The story concerns Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who is brought to an island in 18th Century Brittany to paint a portrait of a reclusive bride to be, Heloïse (Adèle Haenel).
Marianne is intimidated. The first painter became fed up with Heloïse’s refusal to pose and Heloïse herself is a prickly personality. But as soon as Heloïse runs to the sea as if to drown, Marianne is hooked.
The two trade enigmatic replies. Heloïse does not initially know that Marianne has been hired to paint her. Marianne seeks intimate time with her subject but is invariably avoided. The painter becomes obsessed by her reticent subject, driven to paint but also to distraction. At times the frosty Heloïse seems a millennial Madeleine from “Vertigo,” her cheek is untouchable and she only has eyes for the sea.
Marianne remains steadfast in creation.
There are spooky touches. During a bonfire scene, a group of women chant aggressively and it is unclear at once whether they mean well. In another, Heloïse appears in an ethereal wedding dress, similar to a figure in a work by Frida Kahlo.
Both Marianne and Heloïse project opaque emotions, difficult to discern. Mystery, imagination and a desire to rebel holds them together.
Each frame of the film has a painterly aspect and the cinematography by Claire Mathon is wondrous.
Though satisfied on some levels, Marianne is vexed by the unknowns of Heloise, her ambivalence to emotions and events. How can the physicality of paint possibly compete with the supernatural essence of Heloïse? This is Marianne’s angst.
Haenel and Merlant are excellent for showing the push and pull of romantic life in subtle touches which nevertheless contain some high drama.
This sensitive and intricate film by Céline Sciamma asks us which condition is better: the physical reality of fleshy desire or its poetic ideal? To its credit, with a respect for silence and looks askance, there are no absolute answers.
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