Sunday, December 22, 2019

Movie with Abe: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma
Released December 6, 2019

There is a permanence that exists with a painting that isn’t the same as its evolutionary successor, the photograph. The act of sitting for a portrait means that minute, precise details need to be expressly noticed and incorporated by an artist rather than merely captured automatically with the click of a button. The disadvantage, of course, is that a painting might not exactly resemble its subject due to its two-dimensional nature, but if the right combination of effort and passion go into a work, it can live on for generations, keeping the essence of the person pictured alive long past their natural years.

In the eighteenth century, a young painted named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is brought to the island of Brittany and commissioned to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is set to be married soon, by her mother. After learning that Héloïse has adamantly refused to sit for previous hires, Marianne becomes her walking companion to gain her trust. Their relationship develops into something neither of them expected as they forge a bond and a forbidden relationship that makes Héloïse, critical of Marianne’s first effort because she wasn’t aware that she was there to be paint her, eager to spend any time she can with the one person in her life who seems interested in getting to know what she wants.

This film features a few supporting characters, like Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid, but this is largely a two-person story. For Marianne, Héloïse’s reputation precedes her, and their first actual meeting finds Marianne walking directly behind Héloïse out to the beautiful cliffs and seashore, glimpsing her only briefly as she leaves her guard up. Future walks find them shielding their faces from the wind, and gradually they begin to open up, both literally and metaphorically, with each other, discovering comfort in being intimate together in a way that no one could possibly understand. It’s a stirring tale of passion and affection that grows out of crippling isolation.

The two lead performances here are terrific. Merlant is subdued and intentional as she reacts to surprising elements of her situation when she first arrives and learns of her subject, and reveals a hidden warmth when Marianne finds a friendly face on the other side of her brush. Haenel is wonderfully reserved, saying so much with no more than a small smile and grasping Héloïse’s power to influence her enchanted new friend. Cinematographer Claire Mathon makes tremendous use of light and the landscape, and this film has an intoxicating, timeless feel as a result. As its characters do with each other, it’s easy to get swept away by this beautiful and mesmerizing romance.


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