In 18th-century France, women’s options are limited. Marianne (Noémie Merlant: Curiosa) is lucky enough to have a vocation thanks to her father and has become a painter of some small renown. When she’s commissioned to create a wedding portrait for bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel: Heroes Don’t Die), she assumes it will be just another society job. She’s taken by boat to an isolated cliffside estate, but not shown her subject. It turns out, there’s a catch.
Héloïse does not want to be married. She was happily living at a convent until her sister’s unfortunate death, right before she was to be wed. Now, to preserve the match and the fortune that comes with it, Héloïse must take her sister’s place. But every time anyone mentions the marriage or the marriage portrait, Héloïse throws a fit. Her mother is worried the girl may harm herself, which can’t happen until after the marriage if she’s to get her money.
Marianne is told she must pose as a companion to Héloïse, following her during the day and memorizing her features. At night, Marianne can paint the portrait.
One of the most beautifully shot movies of 2019, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is finally making its way to local theaters. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), this is a master class in the art of filmmaking. Sciamma’s carefully crafted love story takes its time to develop, building aching levels of tension as it unfurls.
The beautiful story is supported by glorious cinematography by Claire Mathon (Atlantics), who makes every frame of the film a painting, working in a color palette similar to the one Marianne favors. Every detail is thoughtful, from the portraits hiding visual cues to the characters’ feelings to the costumes that hint at their emotional lives.
And while the movie is technically perfect, the soul of the film is found in Merlant and Haenel’s performances. Merlant’s Marianne is a relatively free woman who finds herself trapped by her feelings. Covered in paint and desperate to capture what she sees in her subject, she’s a whirlwind of subtle looks and fraught desires. Haenel’s Héloïse is a gorgeous bird battering about a gilded cage. As she begins to trust Marianne, she starts to see a life that is impossible for her to have.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a worth-the-trip film. You can find it in both DC and Baltimore. This intrepid reviewer can tell you, without a doubt, that this movie is not only worth the ticket, but worth the extra gas money to get you to the theater. Visually arresting, deeply emotional and exquisitely acted, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the best movies of the year. Seek it out and see what happens when film is elevated to art.
Great Drama * R * 122 mins.
The Invisible Man
Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) has been living in terror. On paper, her life should be wonderful. She lives with wealthy, handsome scientist Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in a huge mansion full of luxuries. In truth, though, her life is a nightmare with Adrian abusing her both mentally and physically.
When she finally leaves, Cecilia goes into hiding with the help of her sister. She’s drawn out when Adrian’s lawyers contact her. They tell her Adrian committed suicide and wanted to leave a huge chunk of his fortune to her. There’s just one condition: Cecilia must be found to be mentally fit.
Weird stuff starts happening to Cecilia. Things move, noises sound late at night—she feels like she’s being watched. Soon, Cecilia is confronted with a horrifying possibility—Adrian isn’t really dead.
An interesting take on the old horror trope, The Invisible Man might be a refreshing reboot of a tired storyline. Moss is a capable actress, and hopefully she keeps what seems to be a melodramatic story from going too far off the rails.
Prospects: Flickering * R * 110 mins.