I’ve heard a lot about Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, over the course of the past few months. It became a favorite of many film critics once the film started playing on the festival circuit. It even won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes film festival back in May of 2019. I was finally able to see the film this past weekend, and I am thrilled to say it completely lived up to the hype. In fact, I enjoyed this film so much that after viewing it I became immediately irritated that I was not able to include it on my Top Ten Films of 2019 list. If I had seen this film before making that list, Portrait of a Lady on Fire would have definitely received a spot. The fact that 2019 was such an incredible year for film has been talked about at length now. Both big and small films from last year received their fair share of praise from fans and critics alike, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire definitively holds the title of the under-the-radar masterpiece of the year.
This film is set in 18th century France and tells the story of a young painter named Marianne who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of another young woman named Héloïse. Since Héloïse is opposed to her pending marriage, she refuses to pose for any painter. So, Marianne must paint her by memory and without Héloïse’s knowledge. She observes her during the day and paints her at night. The hidden nature of her role along with the personal connection that the two women make leads to this task becoming far more interesting, complex, difficult, and emotional than Marianne could have ever imagined.
The success of this film is in large part due to its characters, and the respect it has for them. Noémie Merlant brilliantly portrays Marianne, while Adèle Haenel turns in an eye-catching and unforgettable performance in the role of Héloïse. The film draws the viewer in to both of its main characters in such an engaging way. Sciamma invites the audience to observe the women as they observe each other. This idea of observation is a major theme at play in Portrait of a Lady because Marianne must observe the physical qualities of Héloïse in order to accurately complete her portrait. The film places emphasis on this observation, we see the two women studying each other and because of that we take notice of what they are studying ourselves. These observations do not remain strictly physical though. As the film, and the relationship between the two women, progresses it begins to take a deeper look at the desires and emotions of these women as well. We also begin to see how the two woman observing each other leads to them falling in love with each other.
I noted that this film has respect for its characters, this respect is made evident in how the film takes its time presenting these two characters. Portrait of a Lady could be considered by some to be a slow burn, but I found its pacing both purposeful and effective. The film meditates on its characters, and the relationship that builds between them, in a way that makes this story truly resonate with its audience. This also creates a personal and deeply intimate feeling that engulfs Portrait of a Lady from start to finish. This intimacy not only makes these two characters feel like real people, but real people that the audience actually gets to know. This is interesting because Sciamma, who also wrote the screenplay for this film, never simply explains these characters to the audience through some sort of exposition. Instead, she simply presents these characters, and allows them to naturally exist, in riveting scene after riveting scene. It is within these scenes that we learn more about these two women and start to truly care about them as people. It can be hard for a film to make an audience actually care about its characters but Portrait of a Lady succeeds in doing this. I was moved by these characters, and their story, in ways I wasn’t expecting. I became more fond of, and invested in, them as their own feelings for each other developed and evolved throughout the film.
The intimate nature of this film and the deep look it takes into both of its main characters also gives the audience a greater understanding of the relationship that builds between Héloïse and Marianne. Sciamma knows how to make her audience feel what the characters on screen are feeling. We are able to truly understand how these two women feel when they come together, and conversely, how they feel when they are apart. This is especially true for the Héloïse character. Obviously, a great portion of the credit for this goes to the extraordinarily great performance by Haenel, but Sciamma deserves some of that credit as well. I instantly thought about the character of Héloïse when reading this quote given by Sciamma, in an interview for Portrait of a Lady, “Cinema is the only place, the only art ever, where you share somebody’s loneliness.” The audience feels a real sense of loneliness in Héloïse, especially towards the beginning of the film. We understand that this is a character longing for a life she cannot have, and rebelling against the one chosen for her. We also see her loneliness disappear as her relationship with Marianne grows. The freedom and joy she feels when they are together can be felt by the audience. The way Sciamma is able to relay these emotions is what makes this story so moving, and the progression of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship so touching, but also devastating at times.
In the simplest of terms, Portrait of a Lady on Fire can be described as a love story. It is a love story presented in a way that feels new and refreshing though. There are ideas and moments that I have never really seen before in any other film similar to this. Clearly there is a forbidden romance element to this story, but Sciamma writes the script in such a way that this doesn’t feel cliché at all. There is one scene in particular that stands out to me when I think about how this film separates itself from other forbidden love stories. The scene I am referring to is a fight scene between the two main characters, in the scene Héloïse takes issue with something Marianne says. When I was in the theater listening to Héloïse passionately and emotionally defend her right to not be made to feel guilty by Marianne, I instantly thought about how I’ve never really seen a film explore this idea in this way. The film often explores big ideas in ways that feel simple but are actually incredibly smart and thought-provoking. This story deserves praise for being original and intelligent, but it also should be noted that this is a deeply emotional and moving film as well. There is a brutal, yet beautiful, nature to this story and to this film as a whole. The way it is shot also gives it much more of a tense and at times suspenseful feeling than I was expecting. The entirety of the film’s emotion is captured in its closing moments, which I was absolutely floored by. This film has perhaps the most effective, and most moving, final scene I have seen in a film in a very long time.
Another aspect of the film that deserves attention is the way it looks. The cinematography in this film is outstanding, and quite possibly the best of any film from 2019. The colors are extremely vivid on screen, and each frame feels like it was meticulously thought-over and planned-out in the best way possible. So much of this film is focused on the way in which these characters observe each other and how that leads to them falling in love. Therefore, the film looking as spectacular as it did was, in a way, crucial to the film. The beauty in the framing, camera techniques, and cinematography is actually a necessary component of the story being told. The audience needs to see these characters in the same way they are seeing each other. Sciamma understands this and executes this idea brilliantly.
I am embarrassed to say I have not seen any of Sciamma’s previous films. However, I am grateful for Portrait of a Lady for introducing me to her. I love when a great film resonates with me and makes me excited to explore all of the other works in a filmmakers catalogue, and that is exactly what Portrait of a Lady has done.
This film feels like a truly unique creative expression from a masterful filmmaker with a distinct voice. Films like this don’t come around often, which makes what Sciamma has done here so memorable. I look forward to not only visiting her older films for the first time but also seeing what she will make in the future. This film has retroactively become one of my favorites from 2019, and even though I had to wait a few months to see it, I can now confidently say it was completely worth that wait.
Rating: 5 out of 5