An emotional harmony is located in a kind of devastating elegance in Celine Sciamma’s latest French (fully subtitled) import (no apparent relation to Jane Campion’s past work).
Portrait of A Lady On Fire has an aching, surreptitious quality about it that definitely provokes the mind and heart and is set in 18th Century hilly, peninsular Brittany, France.
A subject to be painted is one Heloise (Adele Haenel of Sciamma’s Water Lillies), an Italian noblewoman’s withdrawn (to be betrothed) daughter who has balked at all who could set their eyes on her.
But, in Sciamma’s sympathetic, delicate hands a commissioned limner in the form of Marianne (Noemie Meriant) is camouflaged as Heloise’s handmaid. She’ll spent time coastal ambles while doing her work in private.
Patient plotting goes a long way here with a dual enamoring unfolding starting with artist to subject. How both are able to expose what lies beneath in a stasis. A gradual metaphorical morphs strikingly, even for on a metaphysical level.
It all wouldn’t work like it does with polished efforts from the technicians, from the lensing to the editing that brings much weight to each frame. Embracing this kind of communication in a muted state at times is something that Sciamma has ingrained into her distaff headliners — the adoration, compassion and sensual evidenced with Merlant, and, especially, Haenel who is surprisingly thoughtful in a virtuoso turn.
Many may find a A Lady on Fire to be on low heat (from a presumed conventional narrative) in its own subversive, if timely and steely fashion for too long. But, it’s fiery revelation out of angst and apprehension to render an indelible spark.