Portrait of a Lady on Fire (M, 121 min) Directed by Céline Sciamma ★★★★★
In the 18th century, if a family of shameless wealth had a daughter approaching marriageable age – and if that daughter had a sufficiently pulchritudinal face to be deemed worthy of a beat, then a portrait painter would be hired to. create a flattering portrait. image of said girl, which could then be mailed to even richer homes in Europe in the hope that a young duke cashed in or the like would be so overwhelmed with, uh, appreciation, that he would immediately drop everything fall and ride his steed across the land for the chance to kneel down and make a bride of the blushing subject.
It was not the most democratic or the most ergonomic process. But there was at least some romance about it that, say, uploading a selfie to Tinder might never really come close.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes place in this world. Artist Marianne was hired to paint Héloïse, the daughter of an aristocratic family living on the beautiful and wild west coast of France. The portrait is intended for a count of Milan, but Héloïse is not too happy that her appearance is appreciated by a complete stranger whom she could then marry. A former portrait painter has already been sent.
Marianne is asked to pass herself off as a simple companion of Heloise and then to paint her from memory in the evening. But the two women fall inextricably and inevitably in love and shit hits the fan, quickly.
* Films to watch in November
* Have we really fallen in love with French cinema?
* Double Lover: A French psychodrama of committed dementia
* What New Zealanders can learn about love (and sex) from French films
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature film. Her Tomboy was probably my favorite film from the 2011 New Zealand International Film Festival and Portrait sold out sold out at this year’s event. I’m not surprised.
It’s a formal, beautiful, disciplined and mature film from a writer / director who apparently can’t go wrong. While the scenario questions and upsets, not only the customs and idiocy of the 18th century, but also those of today, Sciamma still never clashes, nor slips into anachronism.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a love story, a treaty and an elegant manifesto. As a movie – and as a soundtrack – it’s a thing of beauty.
And, as a writing and a performance, you won’t see or hear much better this year. Well done.