- Gareth Crook
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Brittany in the 18th Century. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter, central to this amazingly sparse, subtle and evocative film. Landing on at remote location by tiny paddle boat to paint Héloïse (Adèle Heaney). She spends the opening scenes largely fending for herself in a stately but barren and echoey house, lit by candle. Removing dust sheets from mirrors and furniture. It’s seemingly a fresh start for everyone, a blank canvas if you like. Except there’s history, Héloïse has returned to this quiet home from a convent. Her sister has recently died and she’s to be married. The idea being that the painting will entice a suitor in Milan for her. It sounds rather ridiculous to modern ears, as it does to Héloïse, who resists. Opposing the potential marriage and the commissioning of the portrait. Another painter has attempted the portrait recently... but failed. The task therefore is for Marianne to paint Héloïse, without her knowing. It’s a patient film. Much like painting I suppose. Minutes go by with barely a word. Creating a peaceful world within what appears to be a vast house and a wilder world outside on the coast, exposed to the elements. Héloïse likes to take walks on the beach, which looks stunning and by the cliffs worryingly, as it seems jumping from one was how her sister ended her life. These walks are the ruse for Marianne being there, she’s company and these moments are her only chance to study her model. It seems impossible, but the painting itself doesn’t feel all that important. It’s the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne that’s revealing itself. Marianne understands Héloïse, understands her sadness, her reluctance and upon completing her first attempt at the portrait, confronts Héloïse with the truth. The painting doesn’t tell the truth, Héloïse sees it and Marianne too knows that she must dig deeper. What transpires is a wonderful account of friendship and perhaps something much deeper. Héloïse’s mother, the architect behind the painting and the potential marriage leaves on the understanding that Marianne has one more attempt at the portrait. And so the two women are left alone, with only the young housekeeper, who it turns out is pregnant. Very much a side plot, but evoking further the need for the women to stick together, finding strength from each other. Fire is a constant. Cooking, warmth, light. It feels like the elephant in the room. On a rare foray out of the calm isolation of the house, the three women join others from an unseen village at a nighttime gathering on the moorland. There’s fire once more and striking a capella singing that really makes me wish I’d been watching this in a cinema. This scene is pivotal. Cementing something within Marianne, something inevitable. A touching story of forbidden love. I’m not sure it would stand up to much repeat viewing, but on first watch it’s pretty arresting. A final coda rounds the story perfectly, without being obvious, yet remaining satisfying and I must confess I really fancy a visit to Brittany.