Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

95 (subbed)

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire gloriously depicts the complicated, yet beautiful relationship that forms between a painter and her young female subject. Steady pacing with crisp scenery and always engaging long takes makes this artistic period piece a bittersweet delight to get through. Starting the film after the events that unfold throughout the rest of the runtime is probably the only questionable decision here (slightly deflates tension). Otherwise, it’s an elegant masterpiece on the difficulty of love, the power of art, the female gaze and turning around. 

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) travels to an island with her clothes, art supplies and a canvas. The canvas for a painter is their livelihood. She jumps out of the boat to save the canvas after it’s fallen out and we immediately see the type of person she is. She’s determined to create beautiful art, no matter the cost. She’s also shown to be a strong emotional force against the subject she’s painting. Merlant might have the best performance of the film with her indescribably great non verbal acting. Considering the limited moments of dialogue in the film, Merlant carries the weight with her strong facial features and meaningful gazes. It’s in that silence where the sound design team also excels. For being such a quiet picture, the sound design is rich in detail and you feel the weight of every stroke of a brush or flame going. 

Adèle Haenel’s performance as Héloïse is what received most of the critical attention though for her initially mysterious persona that is later broken down into an emotionally devastating crescendo with the final music sequence. Not only is her performance superb but she also has mesmerizing chemistry with Merlant. The authenticity of the two’s budding relationship together is incredibly high. But I will say that, possibly for not being able to quite relate to two women in love in a period piece (not that I needed to relate), I wasn’t crying by the end like I had expected. That could change on a second watch though. 

Another performer that cannot be forgotten is the friend of Marianne who is also a house maid. Luàna Bajrami as Sophie is nearly as great as the other women. Although her screen time is much shorter, the friendship she forms with Marianne is tremendously real and relatable. I love how the connection between the three progresses through the runtime. And the eventual crushing symbolism of a scene with a baby sitting beside Sophie as something awful occurs is pure art. 

It should be said that of course the painting itself ends up being lovely. The surreal imagery scattered throughout the film is even more artistically resonant. The scene with Héloïse’s gaze across the bonfire along with the few almost horror-esque flashes showing Héloïse in a white dress are only a few examples of art coming to life. The talent behind Merlant’s brush strokes themselves is phenomenal to watch. She actually worked with the real artist of the painting (Hélène Delmaire) to make the strokes feel meaningful. And meaningful is an understatement. I could watch her paint for hours. Long shots of pure brush strokes never manage to bore thanks to her talent and the way cinematographer Claire Mathon shot the film. Her work as a whole is entrancing and I can’t wait to see her next project after realizing she also did the camerawork for the “Spencer,” which is an equally as visually breathtaking film.  

Sciamma dives into the rough side of the history of art where women had to paint under the guise of fake male pseudonyms for their work to be accepted. She also explores the more obvious issue of same sex love being unacceptable for centuries upon centuries. And to close in on one issue more relatively recent, it’s the lack of a female gaze in most cinema before the aughts/ 2010’s. Sciamma’s writing neatly intertwines all of these themes into the story while also crafting an emotionally wrecking climax for the characters. The last scene with Héloïse is equally as bleak as it is reality. Even with our lives constantly changing, we’ll always hold onto that one memory of how it all could’ve been. 

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