© Alamode/Wild Bunch/Filmagentinnen

Portrait einer jungen Frau in Flammen (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)
France 2019

Opening 31 Oct 2019

Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Writing credits: Céline Sciamma
Principal actors: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

France at the end of the 18th century. A small rowing boat brings Marianne to an isolated island in Brittany. She has a commission to paint the young Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who has come fresh from the convent to be married to a gentleman in Mailand. It has been arranged by her mother (Valeria Golino), a widowed countess from Italy. Héloïse is against this marriage and does not want her portrait painted. Therefore Marianne is introduced as her chaperone. She is closely watching the young woman during their long walks along the coast, memorising each detail of her face. At night she paints from memory. But also Héloïse is watching her companion with growing curiosity. The two are exploring the wild coast, vast beaches and picturesque rock formations, impressively filmed by Claire Mathons. They listen to the wind in the dunes or the breaking of the ocean waves. A closeness, as well as a mounting tension, develops between the two women. With each eye contact they are drawn to each other. The slow pace of the film prolongs any expectations. During a village fiesta, not only Héloïse’s dress catches fire but also the fire of love is allowed to be released. A beautifully tender passion is being fulfilled.

The mistress of the house has taken off on a trip to Italy leaving the two women alone in the vast mansion with only Sophie, the service maid. She is pregnant but does not want to keep the baby. The three women form a sisterhood to solve this problem.

At night Marianne is still painting. This is more difficult after being lovers and her attitude toward the portrait is changing. Marianne is increasingly uncomfortable with her secrecy and eventually confesses. No wonder that Héloïse is hurt and disappointed. She feels deceived. After her mother’s return she suddenly agrees to sit for Marianne who reluctantly finishes the portrait. The painting is sent to Milano to seal the marriage contract. Marianne’s job is completed; she gets paid and. with a heavy heart, packs her bag to leave the island. Even though Héloïse is against the arranged marriage, both women know that there is no other way, considering the conventions of the 18th century.

This is a gripping and beautifully filmed love affair, thanks to Claire Mathons’ sensitive camera work. The very expressive faces of both leading actresses are filmed in long close-ups. The result is quite exquisite! Costume designer Dorothée Guiard has chosen either muted colours or gorgeous green and red dresses for contrast. Céline Sciamma’s complex script and restrained direction offers a multilayered reflexion of female needs and desires with insight and feeling. At the Cannes Film Festival she received an Award for Best Screenplay.  (Birgit Schrumpf)

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