Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, at its heart, is ostensibly a romance between two women who find themselves trapped in an inescapable, almost mythological, situation of the reality of forced marriages and unrequited love during 18th century France. The plot is deceptively simple: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) travels to an isolated island in Brittany to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). As they bond over the course of a week, they realize that their relationship starts to transcend beyond what they thought they would feel. Because of this, lines are drawn, and every subconscious desire that they would soon feel is reflected through art, a significant motif in the film. As Merlant’s character, Marianne, tells Héloïse while painting her portrait: art is not just about the painter, it is also about the conventions, rules, and ideas. As much as every brushstroke is piquant with utmost care, the painting a trompe l’oeil of their manifest and latent characteristics, not everything will go their way, and that simple statement bears a hard truth that would soon bring conflict to these characters amidst the idyllic, isolated landscape they live in.

As with any artistic opus, the simplistic plot hides something much more compelling. It is easy to dismiss this film as another short-lived romance between two lovers with a cruel fate. It’s correct on one hand, though it is better to see the film not just as a romance but as an arresting memory. Yes, it’s about love, but it’s also about our fears. Our desires. Our jealousies. The film is a juxtaposition between the past and the present—how we experience human intimacy and our subjectivity towards recalling the past as it calls back to us. It uses elements like literature and Vivaldi to emphasize the core aspects of emotional stability and romantic longing, a feeling that is aggressively stretched with subtlety throughout the film’s runtime.

From the opening shot to the final shot, the film plays like a dream: lucid and surreal with a color gradient reminiscent to an Impressionist painting. Every shot is framed with precision as if we, the viewers, are a voyeur, observing the plot unfold the same way Marianne observes Héloïse while painting her, unconsciously making us recall the distant memories that we have while simultaneously creating an image of emotional strain and tolerance. This act of restraint leads us to the film’s main theme—envisioning love as a transient memory. The film is a painting on a canvas struck by candlelight, blazing yet strangely tender as the colors turn to ash, blending memory and flesh in this portmanteau of emotions called love which, as visceral as it may sound, is as human as we can get.

This embrace of humanity is particularly seen throughout the two leads: Marianne and Héloïse. They are both women trapped in uncontrollable situations, Sciamma deliciously toying with sociopolitics in the screenplay for these women to leave an open space between each other, a space wherein every unspoken desire and feeling may resurface, taking shape into this specific artform—painting. The act of painting is portrayed both literally in the film’s basic plot and metaphorically as a symbol of memory, the film’s portrayal of it an acquisition into something mundane and human, capturing what it means to fall in love and the paralyzing fear of having to experience something new to replace the old ones. The film, now seen as a memory, is manifested into this painting that walks the careful line between what actually happened and what could have happened. Through this, the characters fall in love in this dreamlike state of fantasia vis à vis a memory, and as fleeting as that memory may be, it reminds us that there will always be some satisfaction in the act of reminiscing, as subjective as that experience may be.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, at its heart, is ostensibly a romance between two women, but at its core, is a memory of love, the people we love, and the way in which we remember them. Its strength lies not in the plot, but in the characters whose overwhelming desire for one another is emotionally crystallized into this poignant painting that is a burning creed of their fleeting experience and contentious desires. The time Marianne and Héloïse had with one another may be transient, but it is a testament to the fact that nothing lasts forever and that time will not matter in the face of eternal love. For an outsider, their trip only lasted a week, but for the two lovers, the trip will solidify into this haunting memory that will last for their entire lives, leading to an ending that not only encapsulates the tenderness of love, but one that also recalls the milieu of that summer many years ago, to the moment where Marianne first held up her paintbrush against the canvas to paint Héloïse’s wedding portrait.

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