Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a quietly inventive drama, set on an island in mid-18th century France. The film is about a painter, Marianne, who is commissioned to create a portrait of a bride-to-be, Heloise. Heloise is not so excited to be wedded off and refuses to pose, so Marianne must pretend she is only at the island to be Heloise’s companion and has to paint Heloise discreetly from her memory. But after all that looking at each other, attraction mounts and the film becomes about a fiery romance that celebrates liberty and passion.
I’ve been hearing about how good Portrait of a Lady on Fire is for what feels like months now – the night where I was hooked by the film’s trailer and the song that accompanies it, which is sung over one of the movie’s more surreal moments, seems so long ago. Why’d this movie take so damn long to expand? I have a feeling France choosing the one millionth adaptation of Les Misérables to represent at the Oscars instead had something to do with it. Nonetheless, there I was, on my first discount Tuesday of the month, sitting in the theater ready to watch what is supposedly one of the most “blazingly brilliant films” of 2019. After all that waiting, I think I share that sentiment.
Almost everything about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is outstanding.
The cinematography provides the film with a tender intimacy ripe with tension, from candle-lit discussions to radiant walks on the beach. This quality of the film is only bolstered by the wit of the script – words are sparse but always thought-provoking. In one of my favorite scenes of the film, Marianne informs Heloise she cannot make her portrait smile, and appears to have hurt her by insinuating her “anger always comes to the fore.” Marianne then lists the different idiosyncrasies of Heloise she has observed while painting her. Marianne appears to be in control of the scene. But then, Heloise quickly reminds Marianne they are in the “same place”. She has her walk over to her, and begins to list Marianne’s idiosyncrasies, reminding Marianne the subject observes the painter as much as the painter observes the subject. Heloise intelligently quips, “if you look at me, who do I look at?” The scene finishes with them on the verge of kissing, but restraining, producing frustration that is palpable. Tension is so excellently crafted from the dialogue alone, and the performances are the icing on the cake.
The atmosphere of the film is richly textured with sound, whether that be the crackling of a fire, waves crashing on the shore, or a brush stroke on a canvas. Both Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel give nuanced performances as their chemistry together flourishes with passion; the precision with which their expressions match the script is impeccable. The film’s final shot, a lengthy sequence set to the tune of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and focused on Heloise, is an absolutely sensational bit of acting.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is somewhat of a slow burn, but there is so much to dissect and admire in this self-proclaimed “manifesto of the female gaze” by writer/director Celine Sciamma, that not much patience is required. This is a film made by a filmmaker with not only a clear vision, but a love for her characters. 9/10