Words Mike Beck

“A technical tour de force; for art lovers and lovers alike, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a cinematic masterpiece.”

A sure fire hit at this year’s Cannes & NZ Film Festivals, French writer/director Celine Sciamma (Tomby, Water Lilies) paints a delicate but fiery tale of love and art in a delightful foreign period piece.

Set in Brittany in 1770, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is a promising young artist, commissioned by a countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her soon to be wed daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The hitch being that due to failed attempts to achieve this in the past, Marianne must go incognito and paint her subject in secrecy without her knowing her motive.

As the title suggests, their is some spark in this story. Just as much as the friction of interweaving relationships drives Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, themes are explored visually at a high technical & visual level. Natural light is applied seemingly throughout, creating great contrast (think Kubrick or Barry Lyndon), also, the consistent presence of candles & flames visually convey the inner emotions, desires & conflicts of its principle characters.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is very much a film that highlights art by using various techniques found in the art world as a narrative. Employing the dimensions of the screen as a frame, objectifying its subjects, framing within a frame, the camera depicting the mise-en-scene/characters inhabiting a shot as a painting itself are some. Keep an eye out for more. Also, the premise of a painter having to work in secrecy is a cinematic device that Sciamma incorporates to utilise ‘the gaze’. She does this with flying colours, while Merlant & Haenel have the chops to act out accordingly.

Overall, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is so well told visually, that you could forego the subtitles (unless you understand French & Italian) and still follow/understand the story. On top of this, the exploration of sexuality, politics, feminism & the limitations/expectations of societal constructs really give this film extra depth. A technical tour de force; for art lovers and lovers alike, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a cinematic masterpiece.