Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This lush period-set romance from ‘Girlhood’ director Celine Sciamma is one of the year’s very best films.
December 23, 2019
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Celine Sciamma tasks audiences with literally watching paint dry — and it's riveting. Viewers don't merely stare as the pigment settles, and they don't devote the whole film to glaring at a canvas. Still, in this sumptuous, striking romance, observing artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) as she gazes at her latest creation couldn't be more crucial. She agonises over every brush stroke as if her soul depends on it, because it does, in a way. Her heart does at the very least. On an island in Brittany near the end of the 18th century, Marianne has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the betrothed Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). But how does anyone do justice to the face of the woman they've fallen hopelessly in love with?
Hardly a blushing bride-to-be, Héloïse doesn't want to get married to an Italian man that she has never met, and she certainly doesn't want to sit for an artwork marking the occasion. She has previously refused to comply for another artist, making painting her traditional wedding portrait a tricky prospect. Accordingly, Marianne is enlisted by Héloïse's Countess mother (Valeria Golino) to be her daughter's new companion, to scrutinise her closely every chance she can, and then to craft the picture from memory in secret. As the women spend time together, walking by the sea as the wind swirls and slowly sharing aspects of their lives, their feelings simmer, then bubble, then boil heatedly.
When Portrait of a Lady on Fire depicts Marianne peering obsessively at her picture of Héloïse — even wiping off the paint and beginning again when she's discontent with what's staring back — it shows her lost in thought and swept up in the throes of affection. And, because Sciamma is a gifted visual storyteller and Merlant a great actor, the film makes clear the significance of these moments without overplaying a single element. Watching paint dry is important, because every speck solidifies into a permanent token of how Marianne feels about Héloïse. Naturally, she's determined to convey those feelings in as precise and perfect a way as possible. Given the period, place, prevailing societal attitudes and expectations placed upon women, this portrait is the only enduring way that she can immortalise their love — and the weight of that truth is always heartbreakingly apparent.
Equally beautiful and bold, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that balances the reality of impossible circumstances with otherwise hopeful glimmers, as has become the French writer/director's custom. It's that dynamic that made Sciamma's last feature, girl-gang movie Girlhood, simultaneously perceptive, exuberant and emotionally raw, traits that are essential here, too. The solace that Marianne and Héloïse find in each other's arms in stolen blissful moments proves both tender and sizzling. Their yearning, inner awakenings, and struggle to contain their infatuation within such restrictive confines is palpable. And the fact that their lives aren't their own to decide — no matter how fiercely independent Marianne is, and encourages the more pragmatic Héloïse to be — constantly tints their restrained romance with an unflinchingly bittersweet hue.
Bringing all of the above to life in a movie that's the epitome of slow-burning — pun intended, although a portrait of a lady does indeed catch on fire in the film — Merlant and Haenel are a dream duo. Their performances are so measured yet still so heaving with feeling, and their interplay so exacting yet still so quietly expressive, that they could escape the entire feature without saying a word. Writing and directing, Sciamma has penned intricate dialogue for them to speak, though. They say much without uttering a thing, and they also swap meaty exchanges about classic tales, memories and harsh truths. Sciamma won this year's Cannes Film Festival Best Screenplay award for her efforts, as well as acclaim and applause since; however her exceptional script wouldn't burn as brightly without her two leads.
Thematically, narratively and emotionally, this could never just be a lush romantic drama brimming with uncomplicated passion and desire. In her first period-set tale, Sciamma was always going to confront the minutiae of life for women of the era — it's pivotal to understanding how the requirements placed upon her characters are so incompatible with their happiness, and why they must relish what brief joy they can. That said, Portrait of a Lady on Fire always looks like a lush romantic drama, whether its gorgeous imagery is watching paint dry, enjoying the scenery, or getting as lost in Marianne and Héloïse as they are in each other. Befitting a movie about a painter and a portrait, every frame could be hung on a wall. An exquisite piece in every way and one of the year's very best, this film earns all of the obvious fiery terms, because it sparks, blazes and simply sets the screen alight.
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