Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

If you are familiar with the work of French director Celine Sciamma, then you know that she often deals with sexual identity and gender fluidity within female protagonists (her best known work to American audiences is probably 2011's Tomboy, which deals with the subject quite literally). Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes things in a slightly more traditional approach, depicting a forbidden romance in the 18th century between a painter and a cultured aristocrat on a lonely island. Yet that "traditional" approach is surface level only, as the film deals with conforming to traditional societal definitions of gender, embracing of sexuality, and even memory being not just the most important thing we have in our lives, but being the only thing worth while in the end.

Set on an island off the cost of Brittany in France, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is hired to paint a wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), who has been resistant to such attempts in the past. At first hired in secret, Marianne eventually confesses her reason for being there to Heloise directly after having bonded in friendship. Heloise agrees to the portrait (despite her wish not to go through with the arranged marriage to a nameless nobleman), but as the two are left virtually alone on the island, their friendship develops into a forbidden connection that will drive their inner lives the rest of their days. There are a lot of layers involved in the film, metatextual (noticeably the allusion to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice) and symbolic (the idea of portraits being an unspoken memory between the painter and the subject), and Sciamma blends all of it masterfully. The layers never threaten to overwhelm the simple but deeply moving story either. Part of this is due to the performances, both Merlant and Haenel are excellent in the film (and Claire Mathon's excellent cinematography doesn't hurt either). But just as much of it is down to Sciamma's vision as a director and her skills as a writer.

And perhaps the best part of the film is that it never tries for that "Hollywood ending". Like all of Sciamma's films, fantasy, dreams and pretend are overcome by reality all too quickly. That kind of jarring, cold water dumped over the head moment helps keep the film grounded and makes the overarching symbolism of the second and third act (wherein the romance begins and ends in earnest) all the more meaningful.

Some criticism can be laid at the feet of a subplot involving an unwanted pregnancy and a maid named Sophie (Luana Bajrami), as the subplot doesn't seemingly contribute anything of substance to the overall story. And that's a fair enough criticism I guess. That minor quibble aside though, ultimately the film is a masterwork in directorial storytelling; layering symbolism not for the sake of just appearing artistic, but for actually accentuating an otherwise simple (though very well told) story. In the end, Sciamma has spearheaded the creation of a film memory that ranks as one of the most touching and most thought-provoking in quite some time. Highly recommended.

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