Portrait of a Lady on Fire left one of the biggest impacts on me that a film ever has. It has so much going for it; great cinematography, meticulous direction and screenwriting, and dedicated performances. The director, Céline Sciamma, broke away from her typical coming of age narratives and graduated to a different kind of story. She shifted to putting her interpretation of falling in love to film and does so successfully and beautifully. It’s a perfect Valentine’s Day release as it is without a doubt, the best romance film I’ve ever seen.
One of the strengths of the film lies in its simplicity, starting with the plot. The story follows an artist who is tasked with painting the wedding portrait of a reluctant bride-to-be. Because of that reluctance, she refuses to pose for the portrait. The artist must study her in secret and through memory of her observation, create the piece. Through this observation and perception of said observation, a strong attraction is set alight between the two, and a short lived love affair ensues.
The casting in the film is out of this world. Noémie Merlant plays the talented painter Marianne while her counterpart Héloïse is played by Adèle Haenel. Céline Sciamma actually wrote the part of Héloïse specifically for Haenel, as they had worked together a few times on projects such as her directorial debut Water Lilies and her short film Pauline. The chemistry between the two leads is so explosive and palpable that the affection they hold for one another translates to the audience. I was endeared to Héloïse and Marianne almost instantly.
Much like the various art pieces displayed, the film itself is beautiful.There are shots from the movie that I’ll never forget. One standout was the scene of Marianne drying off by the fire at the beginning of the film. It’s simple – she sits naked, smoking her pipe, with her canvasses drying on either side of her. It shows that she is, at her most basic level, an artist. The moments in the caves and by the sea are mesmerizing with their sandy whites and deep shades of blue. We get a warm contrast with scenes indoors that portray crackling fires and intimate meals in a small kitchen.
Something that has been echoed throughout every interview and panel given by Céline Sciamma, Adèle Haenel, and Noémie Merlant is that the theme that is central to this film is gaze, primarily female gaze. The film embodies the idea of love through observation: how the painter views her subject and how the subject views the painter, seeing and being seen. We see Marianne constantly looking at Héloïse and we’re really looking at Héloïse through Marianne’s perspective. What we don’t notice, until it’s pointed out later in the film, is that Héloïse is looking right back with as much fervor as the painter. It’s so subtle because the film does such a good job of focusing on the task Marianne has. She’s dedicated. We see that at the beginning of the film when she jumps out of her boat into the turbulent sea to recover her lost canvases.
That being said, the pacing of the film is fantastic. The two-hour run time flies by as Sciamma’s style of filmmaking is very pragmatic. There isn’t any dead air or unnecessary use of screen time. The practicality is admirable, and it’s also amplified by her decision to not include a composed score, which is a bold choice considering the gravity of the film. It’s not only a romance film, it’s also a period piece, and within that genre, we expect a tumultuous soundtrack to underscore the romantic scenes between the painter and her model. However, the lack of soundtrack actually ends up working in favor of the film as the tension is built in the ambiance of crashing waves, crackling fires, and strong winds.
Something that is important to mention is that the ideas within this film are radical. However, the narrative and Sciamma’s approach are so confident, that it ends up feeling completely natural. I found my own feelings towards falling in love being reflected back at me with staggering accuracy. The best analogy I could come up with is that this film is very much like a broken mirror – it reflects what it looks upon at so many different angles and gives viewers an unconventional look at something that has been put to film endlessly since the beginning of the medium. In that same sense, it creates something entirely fresh and revolutionary to the romance genre. I finished the film wishing that we had more like it and maybe with its wide release, it will inspire filmmakers to create more pieces that hold its same air of fearlessness and innovation.
Overall, I really can’t find anything to fault in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The ending sequence is one of the most masterful and emotionally powerful progression of scenes I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. The emotions ran high and I found myself moved to tears. And isn’t that what makes a good film? Something that makes us empathize so deeply with the desires of our protagonists that the ending leaves us gasping for breath.
Making my way through the world. Writing and stuff.