PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE: FILM REVIEW
I remember my friend attended a free screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire for her film class in March, and she came back raving about it. It wasn’t until May, when I found myself quarantined in my childhood home, that I finally got around to watching the film. Sciamma's work exceeded my expectations, largely due to the intentful, empathetic eye she crafts the film with, in addition to a number of particularly memorable scenes that left the film’s atmosphere of looming what-ifs hanging by a thread.
Directed by Celine Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire broadly tells a brooding love story between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in the 1770s on the coast of Brittany, a region in France. Marianne has been hired by Héloïse’s mother to paint a portrait of Héloïse before she gets married off. However, Héloïse’s mother makes it clear that this task is nearly impossible due to Héloïse’ stubbornness and reluctance towards marriage. To navigate this difficulty, Marianne pretends that she’s just been hired to keep Héloïse company, and during their walks to the seaside, Marianne tries to internalize as much of Héloïse’s features as possible so she can paint them in secret on her canvas.
Of course, Marianne’s secret cannot be kept -- the guilt eats her up as the two develop a stronger relationship, and Marianne soon enough reveals her true motives. Héloïse is dissatisfied with Marianne's initial painting, which reflects a stiff, shell-like version of Héloïse and shows no trace of the softness inside. Héloïse agrees to get her portrait painted again when Héloïse’s mother leaves for the mainland for a couple of days. These days are transformational for Héloïse, Marianne, and a servant named Sophie as the three play games, debate the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and assist Sophie in getting an abortion. It is a microcosmic world of sorts.
The tension between Héloïse and Marianne finally culminates when left alone by Héloïse’s mother and their relationship blossoms into a fierce and unapologetic romance. Their feelings are not simply built on the high of forbidden love, but rather their intellectual wanderings, which places them on the same palette. The dynamic between Héloïse and Marianne is one that rests on mutual respect and equality. It sounds simple enough, but through examining many other relationships, this is not always a given. This egalitarian dynamic makes all the difference. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a single look holds the world.
It is easy to overdo the cinematic qualities and pacing of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but Sciamma does not fall into this trap. The simplicity of Héloïse and Marianne’s wardrobes contrast with the backdrop of each scene, which, if paused, could each be a painting in and of itself. Similarly, the quiet gazes, pouring of wine, and delicate brushstrokes, contrast with the intense fury between the two women, whose relationship began with one secretly observing the other with as much accuracy as she could, and the other, slowly revealing herself, pushing her trust to new heights. This slow build up could not be achieved without Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel's performances, which are hypnotizing.
The waxing and waning arcs of Portrait of a Lady on Fire are perfectly timed; just when a scene begins to feel a bit too drawn out, an emotional development is thrust into the story. Even towards the end of the film, Sciamma manages to catch you by surprise, especially with a scene that has a crescendo unlike any other. No spoilers allowed, but it stands as one of the finest climaxes I’ve ever seen; it reminded me of watching the final act of a live opera.
Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire pushes the boundaries of unconventional stories of friendship and romance, by crafting one that emphasizes the fluidity of love and both the freedom and constraint that comes with it.