Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

A masterpiece of a certain kind of minimalist filmmaking as well as an unusually rewarding period romance with Gothic undertones, Celine Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a soul-stirring dramatic piece imbued with an almost fatalistic romantic longing. Set in France in the year 1770, Sciamma's film details the forbidden love that develops between a painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and the woman who she is commissioned in secret to paint a wedding portrait of, Heloise (Adele Haenel) while serving as her caretaker. Heloise is not happy about the arranged marriage, but due to societal norms she cannot protest. Despite their relationship being founded on a lie, Marianne and Heloise share an undeniable attraction, as well as an interest in art, poetry, literature, and music which serves to form the bedrock of their love. (The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is recounted at one point, and it is observed Orpheus made the poet's choice, not the lovers, when he chose to turn around and glimpse his love, an exchange that takes on significance in their own story.) Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that indulges in such romantic notions, rendered all the more powerful knowing this forbidden and fleeting love could stand for so many other queer romances that have flourished despite the prejudices of any given period, yet as actors Merlant and Haenel lend it an undeniable specificity that makes the resulting drama hit that much harder.

At the center of Portrait of a Lady on Fire Merlant creates in Marianne a strange and enigmatic woman both gorgeous and mysterious, while Haenel similarly imbues Heloise with an ethereal beauty that somehow feels both otherworldly yet accessible. As a director, Sciamma displays a remarkable talent for capturing the lives of women in a manner that feels so raw and real through her female gaze while employing the most subtle of gestures. Her use of silence and diegetic sound shows extraordinary restraint and patience as a filmmaker, Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks and sounds completely unique as a period piece. Claire Mathon's breathtaking cinematography renders each frame a gorgeous painting, whether one is taking in the beach at sunrise or the candlelit interiors Marianne and Heloise come to occupy. There are some who may find Sciamma's minimalist approach to telling this story to be overly chilly, but make no mistake, the emotional resonance that pours forth from the film in its final passage must rank as one of the most powerful last shots in recent memory. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a triumphant screen romance of rare power and beauty that will likely serve as a source of inspiration to other filmmakers for many years to come.

"Don't regret, remember."

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