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VFF Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Updated: Jun 26, 2019



Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a 2019 French historical drama, directed by Céline Sciamma. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and won the Queer Palm at Cannes, becoming the first film directed by a woman to win the award, and the award for Best Screenplay.


There has been much talking, in recent times, about the problem of the “male gaze” that somehow marks the world of cinema, and in writing the review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire we can only praise the intense and pure feminine look, that director Celine Sciamma, brought on screen: her new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is set a few centuries ago, but has a modern and current approach that cannot go unnoticed and confirms the skills of the author in deepening themes and characters with delicacy, sensitivity and acumen.


The plot of Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes us to Brittany’s rocky coast in 1770. We meet the protagonist, Marianne, a painter hired by the lady-owner of a mansion in which she is accepted to paint the portrait to which the title refers. Object of the Marianne’s painting is Héloïse, daughter of the lady, just returned from the convent and now reluctantly betrothed, occasion for which the portrait will have to be made. Knowing that the woman, Héloïse, has previously refused to sit for portraits as she does not want to be married, Marianne disguises herself as a lady's maid in order to gain her subject's trust. To this end, Marianne begins to scrutinize her in secret, she observes and studies her to grasp her true essence and enigmatic smile, but in this relationship the distance between the two becomes thinner and thinner, creating a delicate and deep bond, made of complicity and mutual understanding.



Portrait of a Lady on Fire is built in the space between the two protagonists, in the looks that are exchanged with ever greater awareness. Looks that also guide the viewer in understanding the two women and their respective nuances, step by step, detail after detail, building a relationship that gains in completeness with the evolution of the story, channeled into the excellent performances of the two protagonists Noémie Merlant and Adele Haenel . Some words must be spent, however, on the nature of the relationship between the two women, which develops above all on an intellectual and verbal level, placing itself on the almost opposite side to the passion of another feminine love story that recently marked the history of Cannes, Blue is the warmest color.


What for some might be considered slow narration, is nothing more than a perfectly constructed story, which takes its time to reveal things and details, allowing us to lose ourselves in the looks that the characters exchange. It is essential to mention what a sensory and aesthetic experience this film is, as frames and color grading are used wisely and creatively, bringing to the screens a sophisticated and simply beautiful film to look at. Sounds and music play a fundamental role and contribute to uniform the story and to let the viewers enter Sciamma’s world.




- Valentina Pastrello

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