Waves of soft blonde hair gently cascade down a young woman’s neck. Another one, with porcelain skin and lovedrunk dark eyes, looks on. Seeing is a decisive act in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a love story that understands the secrets of a stolen stare, the crucial tenderness of holding a person’s gaze that can break a heart without saying a word.
A painter is tasked with painting the portrait of a young and wealthy wife-to-be – other artists before her failed, as the muse knows the painting will be gifted to the man she has no wish to be with. Marianne, the painter, is cautious and curious. Héloïse, the muse, is trapped by her commitments, yearning for control and freedom, to find intimacy in a world in which she’s always been watched at the centre, but never truly seen.
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