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Read: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sumptuous delight

We live in a time where technology has advanced so much that we can watch a film and witness the most extraordinary action and locations and despite being computer generated seem completely real.

This is a great development, but it can sometimes become the only thing worth watching in a film and can try to cover up a lack of plot or poor character development. 

It therefore is refreshing to see and appreciate a film that uses none of those devices to tell a lovely story.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exquisite French film that does just that. Set in the eighteenth century, it unfolds a curious and beguiling encounter of two women Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a troubled young woman and unwilling bride to be. 

Marianne is hired to surreptitiously paint Héloïse and provide companionship to her. Over time the reason Héloïse needs to be watched and her reluctance to marry becomes clear. The film weaves in the story of another character, the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and that provides one of the more shocking and yet most poignant moments in the film.

Director Céline Sciamma has created a sumptuous and sensual film. It is a moving piece of art and it’s story unfolds so delicately and beautifully that the viewer is drawn in as though we are voyeurs. Yet there is nothing unseemly about this. Because Merlant and Haenel have such a natural chemistry, it feels as though we are being invited in to something private yet special. 

In terms of style, the story telling is simple, there is no music at all through the film except for the final few minutes. The scenery is beautiful, the costuming and sets are elegant yet not over stated.  Dialogue is minimal, and there are long scenes where meaning is conveyed by subtext, and emotions that flicker on faces. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in many ways a feminist film that illuminates both the struggles and the strength of women in a male dominated society. Virtually the entire cast, and certainly the principle actors are women and that focusses our attention on the effects chauvinism has on woman and the ways they deal with it. 

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a polemic or political film by any means. It is a beautifully told love story set at a time when society was much more rigid than it is now.  

Portrait of a Lady on Fire may well be the most stunning film of the year. 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE 

In New Zealand Cinemas 14th November 2019

120 Minutes

Starring:  Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel

Director:  Céline Sciamma 

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