Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Neon NZ Film Review
It's the 1700s, and Merlant is Marianne, a painter brought in for a commission of Adele Haenel's fresh-out-of-the-convent Heloise, who's about to be married off to a man she's never met. Heloise has already registered rebellion for this portrait destined for her husband-to-be, refusing to sit for her likeness to be captured.
So Marianne decides to be Heloise's companion by day and to paint her likeness by night.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that luxuriates in the slow burn, and frames itself on fanning the flames of nascent desire.
Back and forths, stolen glimpses and caught looks add much to the burgeoning relationship between the two, and Sciamma lingers when needed and pulls back when expected.
It helps that Merlant and Haenel take their characters on a journey they need, and prove to be such bedfellows for a story. A side story involving the house maid and a situation proves to be a diversion, detracting from what really matters here.
The camera flirts between capturing Marianne's furtive glances, destined to capture details for her pictures and with Heloise's acknowledgement and potential misinterpretation of these glimpses, never once deciding to vocalise either way which is which. It all boils over to a head for obvious reasons, but the simmering before the bubble over is enjoyable to watch.
It may be a little heavy handed in some of its imagery and narrative at times (a long section on Eurydice overplays the looking/ being caught looking metaphor too much) and it may meander on its two hour journey, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire lends much to the story of desire and intimate voyeurs - even if it does so via stiffly starched formal presentation.