Every once in a while, we are gifted with a film that speaks volumes without ever having raised its voice.
This is the case with Céline Sciamma’s newest film, “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.” Keeping true to her minimalist style, the film is quiet in temperament but emotionally explorative in its bones.
Sciamma’s slow-burning drama resides in the cliffs of Brittany, France, where a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been hired by a Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint a wedding portrait for a subject who refuses to sit—her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).
Marianne learns that Héloïse does not want to marry her suitor, who lives in Milan and needs the painting to confirm his future bride’s appearance. She also learns that Héloïse’s sister, who arrived in Brittany before her, threw herself off the cliffs and died in the churning waters below. Since Héloïse has already spurned the artistic endeavors of another painter, refusing to even show her face, the Comtesse tells her that Marianne is simply a “companion” (though Héloïse understands it to mean “guard”) to walk with on the cliffs.
And so Marianne begins her task, studying Héloïse during daylight hours as they walk and painting at night. But her companionship for Héloïse grows steadily, and, at the completion of the portrait, she reveals her true identity to Héloïse and destroys her own work, announcing that it isn’t a good representation of her subject. To her mother’s surprise, Héloïse finally commits to sitting for the painting, and, so, while the Comtesse is away for a few days, the two set to work, idly monitored by the servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami).
What follows is a devastatingly beautiful account of women who want. For Héloïse, though, her spirit is vibrant, and her will is strong. She still understands that she will have to submit to the ways of her era. She does not desire men, and this is something she doesn’t readily admit until Marianne comes along. For Marianne, though, she has made herself independent with her painting, and she still feels a jealousy for her newfound lover. Even Sophie has her thread, worrying about her future as a servant upon finding out she’s pregnant. But in the solitude provided by the Comtesse’s trip, each woman is able to act on her wants, even with the understanding that it is a temporary lease.
The entire cast gives phenomenal performances, but Haenel absolutely steals the show, and rightly so, since her fire is what ignites the surrounding characters. What a steadfast, stunning performance for such a heartfelt, widely relatable story. There is a lot of emotional gravity stitched into the fabric of “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire,” and the impact of the characters’ journey carries on far past the credits. Don’t miss your opportunity to see this film.
“Portrait of a Lady On Fire” plays this month at Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.midtowncinema.com.
At Midtown Cinema
National Theatre Live presents
“All My Sons”
Sunday, March 1, 2 p.m.
“The Lehman Trilogy”
Sunday, March 8, 2 p.m.
Down in Front! Presents
“Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan”
Friday, March 13, 9:30 p.m.
3rd in the Burg
“Drop Dead Gorgeous”
Friday, March 20, 9:30 p.m.