“Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” is a beautifully literal character study

Starting March 6, AMC Madison 6, various showtimes.

Starting March 6, AMC Madison 6, various showtimes. Info

The long-awaited Madison premiere of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has now arrived at AMC, seemingly timed as festival season begins to heat up. To call this film a “masterpiece” feels somehow both accurate (though the Oscars overlooked it) and insufficient. The label implies it is an ultimate directorial statement, and that writer-director Sciamma won’t be telling intensely humane and beautiful stories about the hopes and desires of women for years to come, as she previously did with Tomboy and Girlhood (Wisconsin Film Festival selections in 2012 and 2015, respectively).

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is quite literally a character study and a revisionary statement on the artist and their muse with a nearly all-female cast. Set on the French peninsula of Quiberon in the late 18th century, and told largely in subjective flashback, Sciamma’s film begins rather cryptically from the point of view of young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant, who could pass for Emma Watson’s sister) arriving at the shorefront home of an aristocratic family. There she meets Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has been exiled from a convent, and is being forced into an arranged marriage to an unseen man from Milan. Marianne’s job is to accompany Héloïse on contemplative walks and paint her likeness in total secrecy, as Héloïse objects to the marriage and has refused any action that will facilitate it, including posing for a portrait.

It’s the perfect scenario for establishing the necessity of intense observation for Marianne to complete her task, and this naturally arouses Héloïse’s curiosity. If the latter part of the film focuses on uninhibited lust and the inevitability of dwindling time together in the vein of something like Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), the first act is rather defined by elongated moments of stark, erotic quiet, as the two actresses Merlant and Haenel linger on the pregnant subtext of each spoken word, lending them a heightened romantic quality. For instance, in a flirtatious reply to Marianne’s assertion of her personal independence, Héloïse comes to acknowledge her own while attending a Mass service alone—and yet, Héloïse’s first thought is missing Marianne’s perceptive gaze.

Positioning the plot as flashback bookended by the present tense deepens the film’s parallel’s with Almodóvar’s Pain And Glory (2019) where a more unassuming artist (Eduardo) and subject (Salvador) become the spotlight of its final act. Each film lovingly emphasizes the significant bonds inherent within artist and muse, particularly in a queer context, exhibiting a tenderness that would have been seen as taboo in their respective eras, and even relatively recently in the medium of cinema. There’s a deeper, prevailing sense of the melancholic and ineffable in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, though. Marianne’s visions of love unknown and unfulfilled manifest in ghostly visages and a stunning scene where a haunting chorus of voices articulate a feeling that perhaps no words or portraits can, searing Héloïse’s grace into the everlasting.

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