Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

Celine Sciamma may finally have made her masterpiece with this period love story. She has long detailed aspects of life encompassing hidden love and coming of age in an unsentimental yet poetic way, with tentative first love queer romances such as Tomboy and Water Lilies or the banlieu coming of age story Girlhood, but this time she brings her sensibilities into more of a genre circle and they flourish better there than ever before.
The film follows a portraitist engaged to covertly depict a temperamental young heiress so that her image might be delivered to her foreign suitor. She is presented to the heiress under the guise of an engaged companion, but as the two grow to know one another their mutual understanding turns to empathy and finally profound, romantic love.
The scenario is analogous to The Handmaiden, with a clear class divide between the lovers, the story told from a position of alignment with the poorer woman brought into the household of the debutante, their intimacy forced by their situation, with a degree of deception in their presence. Both films also have an eve-of-wedding setting, as the wealthier, unhappy woman is expected to depart and marry another soon. It's a rich pool of emotion and Portrait doesn't neglect the gothic potential of the scenario, with windscarred cliffs, mythological, poetic allusions to Orpheus and ghostly apparitions aplenty. Yet the film is rooted in a modern, recognisable reality, the sensibilities and interactions of the characters feel lush and contemporary without striking as anachronistic. This is merely a part of history hidden from sight, where ran the same emotions as today.
The power of images, knowing and possession is a potent theme explored as much through the dialogue, as the visuals themselves, there is a fantastic scene presenting three different interpretations of the Orpheus myth, each one revealing as much about the character positing it as about the myth itself.
The film has Sciamma's typical style of poetic restraint, quietly teasing out the subtle intimate beauty of each and every moment, occasionally exploding into images of almost unbearable emotional intensity. Music is used sparingly throughout the film, it is acknowledged to be a household without music, but when music is introduced at the films most key moments, it's a blooming of angst, beauty and energy that cuts like a knife.
The performances by Merlant and Haenel are of course spellbinding, we come to know the faces and emotions of their characters as intimately as they do. Their faces are both extraordinary, Haenel in particular is as readable as a page of text. It's a tender and achingly romantic piece with stunning imagery and a supreme literary eloquence.


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