Recommendation: Films don’t often invite us in, but Portrait Of A Lady On Fire opens up and swallows us whole. Words like strong, cinematic, and beautiful don’t do it justice. 9.5/10.
IMDB Synopsis: On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a moving and stunningly exceptional work of cinema. Ever. Full stop. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the French-language film is gorgeous in every sense of the word. The cinematography is a feast for the senses (as heralded by the LAFCA & NYFCC), subtle, lived in and nuanced performances from the co-leads build the audience up, and the devastating final scene conveys more than entire films do in their entire runtime. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a testament to the power of filmmaking’s ability to wholly engross, engage and uplift.
Set in the 18th century, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire follows painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who travels to a remote island in Brittany, France to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The former must paint without the latter knowing. Described as a “walking companion,” Marianne doesn’t accompany so much as she observes Héloïse so that she may paint her portrait in secret at night. But there’s no connection—no life—in the portrait and Marianne sabotages her own work. Granted five days to paint another, Marianne is magnetically pulled toward Héloïse.
As the cat-and-mouse game of attraction unfolds, the two are forbiddingly absorbed by the one another—ultimately giving in to desire. As Héloïse is set to be married in mere weeks, the taboo love has an impending expiry, making the flames of connection burn brighter, the knowledge it will extinguish soon.
A story of forbidden love in unforgiving times is hardly new, but the film crackles because of the moments between Marianne and Héloïse. Firstly, cautious intrigue over a Vivaldi piano session, stolen glances on the walkabouts, poring over one another in painting sessions… looks during a bonfire celebration. Their bond is able to grow purely and organically due to the relative isolation of the island, where the camera catches all of the intimate moments, feeling exceptionally personal and real. Sketching a sleeping Héloïse by firelight, pontificating on Orpheus and Eurydice over wine, supporting the maid—physically and mentally—through her abortion… It’s a whirlwind romance, but it’s so much more. It’s a bond between two close souls that both know it cannot last.
By film’s end the women are split, forced to lead separate lives by the cold circumstance of 18th century bourgeois existence. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire embodies the adage “it is better to have loved and lost than it is to have never loved at all.” But this isn’t a fleeting romance. At the conclusion the audience sees how both women’s lives—although divergent—have been impacted by their time together. The final shot is devastating. The entirety of the relationship—wants, needs, desires, flaws, insecurities, companionship—is summed up in Héloïse’s reaction to a Vivaldi piece that sparked their romance so many years ago. It’s a stunning and refreshing reminder. An encapsulation of a moment in time, that these two women will be inexorably linked for life, never free from each other’s gravity, no matter the circumstance.
MVP: Mariannce (Noémie Merlant) as the independent and stoic painter who also conveys her vulnerability and tenderness with equal aplomb.
Highlights: The entire film is a 121-minute masterclass in filmmaking, especially the cinematography and acting direction.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Studio: Neon // Original release date: September 18, 2019 (France), February 2020 (int’l)