Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exceptional period drama with universal appeal, combining breathtaking visuals and an enthralling, emotionally devastating narrative.
Love is often an inextricable force. No film in the past year so accurately understands and elicits the magnitude of this than Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the fourth feature film by French writer-director Céline Sciamma. Sciamma, whose previous formative works focused on adolescence and identity, finds similar thematic success here in the form of an alluring period piece. Now it seems she has outclassed herself. As passionate in its filmmaking as its protagonist’s blossoming romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has already been deemed by many as a masterpiece, and that label stands true upon closer scrutiny.
The narrative is rendered through the framing device of the eponymous portrait. Set in 1770s France, female painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) recounts her memories of the titular painting’s origin. Taken to a deserted island, Marianne is hired by a countess (Valeria Golino) to secretly paint the wedding portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse is a young, stubborn woman reluctant to marry a nobleman, refusing to pose for painters who try to paint her in order to avoid the arrangement. As Marianne observes Héloïse further, a bond is inevitably struck between them. Herein lies part of the mesmerising power of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as Sciamma traverses romance genre conventions to transform them into a story that feels refreshing and victoriously feminine at heart, exhibited in the explicit parallels drawn to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The dynamic of muse and artist (Héloïse and Marianne) is flipped completely too, their gazes accorded in order to regain a true idea of female agency long subdued in art and, by extension, the cinema itself.
Most noticeable from the outset of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the conservative, intimate nature of its design. Quietness pervades every aspect of the film. Sciamma’s choice to keep the sound completely diegetic is a decidedly bold one, immersing us immediately through the gentle brushes on paper. In the intermittent moments where Sciamma involves music, the pieces have genuine emotional weight, generating the film’s most raw crescendos. In a similar display of brilliance, the cinematography is gorgeously composed by Claire Mathon. Sciamma opts for an observational mode of storytelling, using painterly framing and movement to magnify Marianne and Héloïse’s embrace of one another. Like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Sciamma never condescends the audience, with the story beats and emotions constantly conveyed through visuals rather than spoken directly. Such practices require restraint from directors, yet the relative ease and success with which Sciamma pulls this off proves that less is definitely more.
Continuing in the spirit of that adage, Portrait of a Lady on Fire finds a match to its remarkable artistry in the adeptness of its screenwriting, having deservedly won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year. The film is unhurried in its pace and appropriately so. Each scene is carefully measured to carry just the right amount of passion and longing between the two leads. Every look, line, reaction and touch is critical to the ill-fated romance at the heart of the narrative, elevated by the sharply written, sensual interactions between Marianne and Héloïse. It ingeniously sets up a devastating third act that is as powerful as it is melancholic, paying off the film’s motifs in a way that captures everything one can feel when they are hopelessly in love. This paves the way for one of the most astoundingly potent final shots of any film, one that is sure to leave you breathless, perfectly summarising the film’s portrayal of love’s power lying primarily in the smallest of moments.
While this penetrating portrayal of love and memory is undoubtedly central to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, to dismiss its concerns with female representation would be a disservice. Though men are almost totally absent from the picture, their gaze is still felt at every step of the narrative. The patriarchy looms silently in the background, envisioned in the imagery of the endless beach horizon as the end of this Gothic-inspired female world. Through their relationship, Marianne and Héloïse, having once submitted themselves to a comfortable, conventional worldview dominated by men, unconsciously overcome their initial ignorance, asking one another “if you look at me, who do you see?” Emphasising the value of female collaboration, Sciamma gives a voice to women in a profound way that is rarely achieved in art, depicting purely female-centric experiences that have been deemed forbidden or ‘wrong’ for centuries in an honest and confrontational manner.
The casual approach by which this reality is shown, especially from the perspective of a female director, reveals a great deal in how long the lives of women have been tragically erased throughout history. By doing so, Sciamma attempts to return women their independence and, consequently, strengthen their gaze. Just as the characters use art to remember their love and return their own agency and history from the control of men, the film as a whole is able to immortalise these images. In essence, Portrait of a Lady on Fire achieves something truly radical in uprooting the female characters supposedly ‘inevitable’ loss of agency at their return to the world of men, allowing them to live on through the art of cinema. It seems hopeful, then, that love will always find its way in such a harsh world, as will women.
This would all be ineffective without a strong cast to play it out. Merlant and Haenel give phenomenal performances. Both actresses masterfully impart the characters with a tenderness and intensity that is authentic all the way through, as is the simple-but-stunning costume work. There is even an added layer to be found in the casting of Haenel, who briefly dated Sciamma some time before principal photography began. Credit is also due to Luàna Bajrami as maid Sophie, and the editing by Julien Lacheray.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire taps into the fabric of cinema in a way which proves its power as art. It is as evocative as it is breathtaking, as thoughtful as it is absorbing, and no doubt outstandingly crafted and acted. Much like Marianne and Héloïse’s fervent memories of a love long lost, while our lives may go on, it is important to always remember what you know to be true – no matter how painful the process is. Love is complicated like that. You have to make yourself live in it. In the end, though, it is the most transcendent and permanent feeling of all.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma, is distributed in the UK by Artificial Eye, certificate 15. It is available to watch via Curzon Home Cinema now.