Film of the Month: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Stars: Adèle Haenel, Noémie Merlant, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma has had a remarkable track record since her 2007 debut ‘Water Lilies’. This sweeping period romance is her finest and richest work to date. It’s 1770 and Héloïse (Haenel), daughter of a French countess, is returning from a convent to the family estate on the remote Brittany coast, following the death of her sister. She has been betrothed by the Countess (Golino) to a Milanese nobleman. Her choice is to accept marriage or return to the convent. Painter, Marianne (Merlant) is commissioned to do her wedding portrait. As Héloïse has hitherto refused to sit for a portrait, Marianne must pose as her companion and paint her from memory. Then the duo start to gravitate towards each other and Héloïse agrees to sit. When the Countess goes to Italy, they grow even closer, bonding while reading and debating the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In a touching demonstration of female solidarity, they also reach out to help servant Sophie (Bajrami). Heritage setting aside, this is a vital and sensuously visual swoon of a picture, and skilful feminist repurposing of the period piece, as well as a deeply affecting and deftly-orchestrated love story about disparate marginalized women finding common ground. Exhibiting an intoxicating chemistry Merland and Haenel deliver perfectly modulated and attuned performances and the ending is beautifully realized.