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"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" sets the female gaze ablaze

Starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Valeria Golino and Luana Bajrami. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma. Now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 119 minutes. PG

Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Green and red are the warmest colours.

This swoon-worthy romance by Céline Sciamma (“Water Lilies"), set in 18th-century Brittany, gazes at the meaning of art, love, obsession and seduction.

Noémie Merlant plays Marianne, an artist hired by a French countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a wedding portrait of her reluctant daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse, who has just come out of a convent, is expected by her family to marry a man from Milan whom she's never met.

Héloïse refuses to sit for the portrait, so Marianne must use stealth to paint her, even as both women find themselves drawn to each other. The intensity of their encounters is matched by the searing cinematography of Claire Mathon ("Stranger by the Lake").

The winner of the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay awards at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" could be considered Exhibit A for essays on the female gaze.

(This review was originally published Aug. 30, 2019, in the Toronto Star.)

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