Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★½

Cannes 2019
Film #18 

“Retourne-toi”

A tasty, little morsel, the film opens with stunning cinematography from Claire Mathon. Director Céline Sciamma reunites with actress Adèle Haenel (Water Lilies) to create an 18th century rendition of Carol. Heloïse (Haenel) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) pick up on one another’s quirks in a masterful way. From the way Marianne notices Heloïse’s hands to Heloïse having a complete breakdown, each detail is so delicate, yet it has a powerful impact. 

Noémie Merlant is like a Kristen Stewart or Rooney Mara, yet she fulfills the role in the way only she could, as Marianne, the independent painter who will inherit her father’s business one day. 

Adèle Haenel’s Heloïse is not so lucky, being forced into a marriage she does not desire at all. Her character has less power, yet she has a resilience that runs deep. She is twice dressed in white at night, appearing and disappearing as a spectral figure. 

There’s an already infamous choral scene that was pretty musically, but didn’t do it for me technically as the lips didn’t match the voices. Another critique is that Marianne painted portraits so fast (sometimes 5-6 days). Comparing it to the Alberto Giacometti movie (Final Portrait) where the painter would take several weeks/months, I had to wonder if Marianne was supposed to be a girl wonder or if Giacometti was just an irascible perfectionist (probably a bit of both). Another critique is that Marianne is telling the story as if it happened a long time ago, yet the future Marianne hasn’t aged at all. 

The long take of Heloïse at the end showed her anguish, and also made me feel the weight of things that are too impossible to come to pass.

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