Review: The Slow Burning Genesis Of ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’

In a world where Marvel movies aren’t cinema and Hollywood politics often plague the ones that are considered to be, foreign films can be a refreshing change of pace for a viewer. This couldn’t be truer for the French period romance film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Written and directed by the internationally acclaimed French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, the film succeeds in telling a love story for the ages with a modern sensibility sprinkled throughout. 

Told in flashback, we first meet the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) bobbing about on the sea, being taken to a seaside estate where she is about to paint the manor’s young mistress, where is to paint Héloïse (Adele Haenel) as a present to a possible suitor. Héloïse is quite against the match, feeling a lack of control over her own future, and has refused to be painted. Marianne must gain her trust and paint her without her knowledge. As time passes, the two women grow closer, bonding over Vivaldi and feeling trapped in late eighteenth-century gender norms. As trust builds, love blooms, making Marianne’s job harder as the lines between work and duty are blurred, with Marianne wanting to show her work. Once the betrayal is known, Héloïse agrees to pose for the painter, throwing them even closer together and into the unsaid struggle between societal expectations and natural human desire.

Like a true French filmmaker, Sciamma doesn’t rely on dialogue to tell her story, instead using visuals to portray characterization and development to hold our attention. Mastering elements of mise en scene, like center framing, symmetry, and natural light, the piece is filled with meaningful imagery and messages often missing from modern mainstream cinema. Brilliant painting-like frames pop up from time to time, creating a breadcrumb trail of visual treats for the viewer. For some reason, the longing between the two women seems to be amplified by the sparse and vast landscape, an obvious metaphor for them being extremely beautiful and desirable yet lonely. Steadily paced, the film takes its time, relishing in the silence and the process of Marianne’s work. This builds tension rather than boredom, showing Sciamma as the master craftsman she is. Sciamma knows how to bring use filmmaking to bring out the performances in her actors, the chemistry between Merlant and Haenal palpable and captivating. 
Winner of the best screenplay award and the Queer Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival, the film delves deep into modern issues plaguing women, from sexuality to abortion, against a period piece background. The main cast is entirely female and this representation is continued behind the scenes with mainly female department heads, including artist Hélène Delmaire, who painted around 16 hours a day on set to match the paintings with the film’s blocking. The result is a well-crafted film, clearly made by dedicated professionals who just so happen to be women. 
Visually stunning and narratively heartbreaking, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Célina Sciamma brings us one of the most moving films of the year and one of the most breathtaking romances of the decade. Destined to be nominated in the Foreign Language Category, this slow-burning diamond in the rough is worth settling into for two hours. 
4.5 out of 5 


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