Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a profoundly emotional viewing experience. The source of this intensity is primarily Celine Sciamma, who must surely be considered one of the best directors working today. However, all elements of the production – her actors, Claire Mathon’s cinematography, Sciamma’s own script – combine to deliver an achingly beautiful film where the viewer feels the romance developed just as deeply as the protagonists.
The film opens on Marianne (Noémie Merlant) taking a painting class, where she is asked about a painting of a woman, the bottom of her dress ablaze. This work is used as an avenue for her to relay the story of the film. The picture is of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a French noblewoman due to be married to a wealthy Milanese man. Marianne’s job is to paint a portrait of her, but there is a catch: Héloïse must not know that is Marianne’s objective, as she rejects the marriage and has already refused to pose for a picture as part of it. Marianne is introduced as a companion for walks and, over time, the women bond. Once Marianne’s purpose is revealed, Héloïse surprises her mother by agreeing to pose nevertheless. In her mother’s absence on a trip to Italy, the women’s bond deepens and the romantic connection between the two blossoms into a full and passionate – if fleeting – relationship.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, like much of Sciamma’s work, sparse on dialogue. Héloïse and Marianne’s deepening connection is left to the restrained but expressive work of Merlant and Haenel. Every micro-expression across their faces, Noémie Merlant’s in particular, quietly demonstrates the growing connection between the two. The intense scrutiny of each other’s emotions, coupled with the close shotmaking during intimate moments, places the viewer directly amongst the sparks that develop. The film’s rejection of the standard artist-subject dynamic is also notable, with Héloïse just as keen an observer of Marianne as the reverse. In this regard, the relationship that develops is one of two equals, resulting in the bumps experienced being slightly less predictable as a result of the lack of power dynamics.
As the relationship develops, Sciamma and her team illustrate this beautifully without much open dialogue. Claire Mathon’s photography work, in particular, has many moments that communicate the bond in touching and poignant ways. As Marianne gazes at Héloïse from a distance across a twilight fire scene, it illuminates nothing but Héloïse – the backdrop is black, and Héloïse gazes back. At that moment – despite the gathering of women around them – nothing exists for them except the other woman until the bottom of Héloïse’s dress is set ablaze. Upon the impending end of their relationship, and the impassioned urgency it brings, the turbulence and crashing of the waves feels more prominent in the sound design. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a meticulously crafted film.
Amongst the themes of the film, the concept of how love may endure and what memories don’t fade is the central one for a story centred on a seemingly doomed relationship. An extended dialogue sequence invokes Orpheus and Eurydice, wherein Marianne rejects the typical interpretations of the importance of patience or trust. Instead, it is posited that the memory of someone can be more meaningful and lasting than reality. The remembrance of a lover’s face is what we chase. This harmonises nicely with the anticipation Sciamma develops for Héloïse at the start of the film: her face is unknown, then described, then unseen from behind, and finally obscured from the front before Marianne finally sees her. Throughout, the elements of staging, blocking, and photography are all beautifully crafted to heighten the impact.
As a result of much of the film’s work being subtle and – unlike Orpheus – patient, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an undeniably slow burn. However, it is precisely and artfully made so that the feelings do not build linearly but exponentially instead. By the time an orchestra hits Vivaldi’s Summer, the passion is thunderous for a love story – and a film – which is over but no less stirring as a result.
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A powerful and meticulously crafted film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is as emotionally wrecking as it is beautiful to look at.
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