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Girls on Canvas: A review of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant | Portrait of a Lady on Fire | mk2films

By Zoe Peck

If you’re a fan of French, lesbian, romantic-drama – and goodness knows I am – you’ll probably already be aware of César Award winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire, written and directed by Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Water Lillies).

Viewed à la lockdown for £9.99 via Curzon Home Cinema might not be ideal for loyal cinema-goers, but if anything, alone in your bedroom with a box of tissues is the best place to watch it…because you’re going to cry your little heart out.

Now the film’s all about The Fe(male) Gaze – no not “female gays” (though it’s about them too) – the expert use of camera angles shows how in film and life, women are trained to be more in tune with how they are perceived, than perceiving itself.

This film turns that concept completely on its head. The “love interest”, rather than being a passive subject, through camera angles and dialogue, startles and evades both the protagonist and viewer.

The story follows an 18th Century portrait painter (Noémie Merlant) who is commissioned to paint a rich lady’s daughter (Adèle Haenel, Water Lillies), so she can be advertised for marriage.

But the subject of the portrait doesn’t want to be painted, so the artist must paint in secret, evaluating the subject through stolen glances. Now I’ll defy anyone not to fall in love with someone you’re not allowed to openly look at.

If you’re a fan of Action as a a genre then this film probably isn’t for you. The pace is achingly realistic, like most French films – where you will watch someone smoke a cigarette for as long as it takes someone to smoke a cigarette. Is this a documentary? Have they accidentally left the camera rolling?

To compare with a film of a similar genre, Blue is the Warmest Colour (a loose adaptation of a comic by Julie Maroh) also broke my heart with its realistic and subtle depiction of falling in love. But only one of these two films includes a much criticised, gratuitously long sex scene (7 minutes is a long time in a cinema) and only one was directed by a man. Look, I’m just stating the facts.

There were precisely two cheesy scenes, and one hilariously “on the nose” positioning of a hand mirror – not bad for a two-hour film.

Honestly, I usually steer clear of period pieces because the difference in era is a barrier to feeling like I’m there. But a story about trying and failing to do what you’re supposed to, will always be relevant.


What do you think?