CAST: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
RUNNING TIME: 120 mins
BASICALLY…: In 18th century France, a young painter (Merlant) develops a passionate bond for the woman (Haenel) she has been hired to covertly create a portrait of…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
If you were to just hear the logline for Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it might sound like nearly every other historical romance ever. But right away, it’s clear that the film – Sciamma’s fourth in total, following her unofficial trilogy of coming-of-age dramas Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood – is eager to set itself apart from the standard template, offering intriguing new ways to tell a simple story of two soulmates meeting and falling in love, while also exploring fresher themes that are both timely and timeless.
It works magnificently on all fronts, for this is a sublime piece of work that’s stimulating for the eyes and the brain, and captivates you right until the credits first start to roll. It is, appropriately enough, a work of art.
That’s an appropriate term because art is a central figure in the movie itself; one of our lead characters is a young painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who we meet as she arrives on a remote isle off the coast of Brittany sometime during the late 18th century. She has been summoned by a wealthy Countess (Valeria Golino), who commissions her to create a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for the Milanese nobleman she has been betrothed to. However, since Héloïse objects to the marriage and thus refuses to sit for any painter, Marianne must pose as her new walking companion and create the portrait in secret, using only her memory to draw and paint. Before long, both women start to take a great shining to one another, and soon bond in ways that neither one of them may have expected.
Sciamma, no stranger to exploring rich themes of feminine power and identity within her work, crafts for herself a rich treasure chest of material to work with here, tackling a lot of fascinating topics with elegance, sophistication, and a great amount of care. There is much to be said about the woman’s role in the world of art at the time, when female painters existed but were not treated as seriously as their male counterparts – we learn that women were not even allowed to paint men in any capacity – which is an observation that might not seem all that new (sadly), but the filmmaker makes it feel fresh by lightly raising the issue without diving too deep into it; she gently pokes at this historical context enough for us to at least acknowledge its existence in this time period, but never lets it overshadow the main crux of the story, except for the few times it becomes necessary for the story and no more.
Adding to that, even though the principle characters in this story are female, with barely any male ones to speak of, there is always the looming threat of male dominance; as Marianne and Héloïse become closer, the former begins to fear the inevitable day when Héloïse’s betrothed comes to claim her for his own, and there is nothing either of them can do about it, no matter how much in love they are with each other. Again, Sciamma doesn’t go too overboard with depicting the male threat (making something like the recent Black Christmas remake look even more foolish by comparison) but she does make it enough of a concern to legitimately worry about because, in the context of this particular story, it puts an expiry date on the romance we are watching blossom right in front of us, and since that element is done so effectively – with outstanding turns by both Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel who completely convince us of their love and growing affection for each other – we start to feel legitimately sad that it has to end because of the almighty penis.
Their performances definitely illuminate Sciamma’s tight and wondrous screenplay and direction, as well as some truly stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon which, thanks to the 8K resolution cameras used to shoot scenes, is bursting at the seams with colour. It might be one of the most colourful films I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road, and while they are both radically different movies they both generate a certain level of awe in their visuals which could easily fool someone into thinking that each and every frame has been painted by hand, particularly and appropriately with this one. Scenes of characters walking along beaches and on top of cliffsides, or simply sitting by a warm fire in an empty room, glow with extravagant complexion, courtesy of a palette that really brings out the sharp detail of just about anything and anyone present in the moment. There are entire scenes where characters are just playing cards, discussing the hidden meanings behind the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, or even helping sweet young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) abort her unwanted baby, and you’re hooked because not only is the writing, direction and performances all on point, but it looks so beautiful you’re enchanted even when not a whole lot is happening.
The passion is evident in the way the film looks, how it is paced, how it sounds – there is no musical score, save for a few carefully chosen music cues at integral points during the film, which brings other more important things to the forefront – and what it wants to say. You’ll feel just as much passion if you decide to go and seek out this film, because it is by far one of the better romances I’ve seen in a while, and certainly one of the better films too. It’s a shame it didn’t receive an official UK release last year, because then it definitely would have featured on my Best of 2019 list, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire transcends even the end-of-year lists to be an outstanding piece of art no matter what time of year it is.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an outstanding film that leaves you utterly enchanted by its beautiful and colourful cinematography, its rich themes which writer-director Céline Sciamma handles gently and with great care, and its all-around passion which can be felt in everything from the stunning performances to the effective lack of musical score.