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INVERNESS FILM FESTIVAL 2019 REVIEW: Portrait of a Lady on Fire the hottest ticket in town as French romance finds bittersweet notes of sublime longing in Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel's incredible performances

By Kyle Walker

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire



SOFT, languorous and devastatingly beautiful, Portrait of a Lady on Fire easily deserved to be the hottest ticket in town.

The French-language film unfurls like silk, allowing its central romance to slowly develop to a boiling crescendo, before plunging into something more mediative, bittersweet and beautiful than one might initially expect.

In the 18th century, artist Marianne has been summoned to an isolated French island by the mother of a young woman – Heloise – to craft her portrait and send it to her prospective fiancé.

With Heloise refusing to sit for a portrait however, Marianne must study her and paint in secret.

What delights so much about the film is, at first, this central relationship, as Marianne and Heloise slowly fumble towards a kind of trust – and something more.

It’s a film where the ache of longing practically stretches the screen as their relationship develops and blossoms into romantic affair.

The film’s subtle weaving of what life was like – is like – for women through this romance builds its world wonderfully. Héloïse has no real choice in her marriage, and the maid Sophie has to contend with an unexpected pregnancy.

Noémie Merlant as Marianne is wonderful, showing how her burgeoning study of Heloise’s features for the painting slowly simmers into something more.

But it is Adèle Haenel as Héloïse who is a revelation. She etches every emotion onto her features – cold fury, heartache, sly humour and longing.

The film wisely gives up its final two or three minutes entirely to that expressive face, the camera simply watching her and slowly closing in on her as she watches and reacts to an orchestra.

That description does not do it justice, but I don’t know what description could without spoiling the movie. It is, suffice to say, one of my favourite and most gutwrenchingly bittersweet of endings to a movie I have seen this year.

My heart burned up after Portrait of a Lady on Fire – it was a dream.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire returns to Eden Court in March.

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