Noémie Merlant

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

25/03/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The current global pandemic has had devastating consequences for so many people that it seems somehow petty to complain that, as ardent movie fans, we’re trying to deal with the much less disastrous irritation of having no new movies to review. But nevertheless, the problem exists.

Of course, films are readily available on streaming services such as Netflix , but there’s not much there that we haven’t already viewed elsewhere – so, when we hear about Curzon Home Cinema, where there’s no monthly contract and where recently released films can by rented for a set fee, we are naturally keen to try it out. Prices range from £4.99 to £9.99 and there are discounts for those who choose to become members. Portrait of a Lady On Fire is our first foray into the service.

This handsome French production has all the familiar tropes of a classic Gothic horror: an empty house in a remote location; dark candlelit corners; there’s even what appears to be a ‘ghostly’ presence haunting its corridors. But writer/director Céline Sçiamma clearly has other intentions and what gradually emerges here is a tragic love story enacted in a period when such love was strictly forbidden.

Portrait painter Marian (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an unnamed island. She’s been commissioned by Lan Contesse (Valerio Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel), who – after the death of her older sister – is about to be betrothed to a man she has never met. But Hélöise – understandably – really isn’t in the mood to have her portrait painted, so Marian is going to have to spend as much time as she can with her and produce the portrait in secret. Locked up together in the house, with just young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) for company, Marian and Hélöise grow closer by the day…

This is a gorgeous film, featuring beautifully nuanced performances from the two leads and gifted with some sumptuous cinematography. It’s a strikingly feminist story, clearly demonstrating the unfairness of womanhood in the 18th century. But it’s strongest suit is in the depiction of an artist at work, as Marian gradually builds her images from rough lines in charcoal to the finished product. There’s also a stunning set piece where we fully understand the full meaning of that unwieldy title and also a bitter-sweet coda that drives the film’s powerful message straight to the heart.

Curzon Home Cinema is surely the place to procure your cinematic fix.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney