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Call Me By Her Name: A Review Of 'Portrait Of A Lady On Fire'

A stirring period drama, ‘Portrait of a Lady On Fire’ echoes “Call Me By Your Name’—but this time exploring the love between two young women, trapped by the realities of French society

As one of films being exhibited under the World Cinema section of the ongoing Cinema One Originals Festival, Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a beautifully shot, exquisitely pitched, exploration into lesbian love, and the role of women in 18th century France. What’s telling is how even in the upper reaches of society, a strict code of conduct and duty is enforced, trapping our two female protagonists. 

Directed by Celine Sciamma, the film won the Queer Palm, and Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. There are still screenings of this film before the C1 Originals Festival ends on the 17th of November, so do check the festival schedule, and seek out this gem of a film. You will love how the relationship develops and how conflict rears it’s tragic head.

The film opens with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching an art class, and being asked about one of her own paintings. Daughter of a renowned portrait artist, the query leads to the flashback of a commissioned painting that brought Marianne to the desolate Brittany coast. There, on the behest of a French countess, she is tasked to execute a portrait of the Countess’ daughter. Heloise (Adèle Haenel) was called out of the convent in order to be betrothed to a Milanese duke. Originally, it was Heloise’s sister set to be married off, but this sister died under dubious circumstances. 

The little thorn in the commission is that Heloise refuses to sit for the portrait, and the painting must be done surreptitiously. That’s all the story premise one needs to know as the film subtly explores the role of women, the call of familial duty, how marriages at that level of society were arranged and had more to do with merging or saving fortunes, and how personal and private feelings and/or emotions did not even enter the picture. 

I mention how the film copped this year’s Cannes Best Screenplay, and for much of the first quarter of the film, you may be excused for wondering how that could ever have happened, given the sparse (almost non-existent) dialogue. This first part is really about stolen glances, undercurrent of emotions, and meaningful looks. But as the “courtship” begins in earnest, one is utterly charmed by the exchange between the two. The role of the pregnant housemaid is also crucial in bringing our two heroines together.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant | NEON

The film echoes Call Me By Your Name as the film closes. Remember how the closing scenes and end credits swirled around the face of the boy played by Timothée Chalamet? Here, it’s the bittersweet ending as etched on the face of Heloise as she is spies upon by Marianne at the musical performance of a piece that meant a lot to the two of them. It’s a beautiful way to end the film, as is the portrait of Heloise with child, done by some unknown artist, years after their relationship was snuffed out in the name of family duty and the conventions of society.

This is a subtle, perhaps rose-tinted, look at early lesbian love—but it charms and mystifies with a deep strength and purpose.

Check the C1 Originals Festival schedule for all the showings of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


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