French films review – February 2020

French films and essential viewing for cinéphiles. This month: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and La Vérité

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma; 99 mins

With this pre-Revolution period tale of an aristocrat and an artist’s relationship, director Sciamma makes a radical departure from her three previous films – the highly acclaimed, social realist coming-of-age trilogy Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood.

And it turns out to be an inspired take on the “female gaze”.

Professional portrait artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on a semi-secret mission in rural Brittany, ostensibly to act as a walking companion to a noblewoman’s daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who recently returned home from a convent and is reeling at the loss of her sister who committed suicide, possibly to avoid an arranged marriage.

Marianne’s role is to create a portrait to be sent to Héloïse prospective husband in Milan – a “profile picture” for her own arranged marriage. But she must do it furtively, as Héloïse would never agree to a formal sitting. So the pair go for long walks, which allow Marianne to closely study her subject’s face, to help her commit it to canvas later in private.

Héloïse soon notices these long gazes – is she or is she not misreading them? As their intimacy develops, and the gazes become mutual and fixed, the pair take on a shared project to help household servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami).

Once Marianne confesses her true purpose to Héloïse, the artist-muse relationship, and all the psychological and interpersonal manoeuvring this presents, becomes a fascinating theme.

Watch the trailer:


La Vérité (The Truth)

Catherine Deneuve shines as a film star whose newly published memoirs trigger a battle of wits over disputed memories with her daughter (Juliette Binoche).

Watch the trailer: