Portrait of a Lady on Fire
by Toby Woollaston
The focussed intensity of love is explored in French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s latest film. A period piece that details the lives of two 18th century women over the course of one fateful week, Sciamma’s romantic drama feels modern despite its setting. It’s a brooding and simmering film that evokes themes of modern classics; the transcendent feminine gaze of Campion’s The Piano, the gay love of Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, even its exploration into forbidden lives echoes von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. And yet despite thematic similarities, Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels entirely fresh in its treatment of femininity, due most notably to the resolute absence of masculinity set within Sciama’s frame.
Set on a remote island off the coast of Brittany, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is reluctant to marry and refuses to sit and have her image painted—a task required for potential suitors. With Héloïse having already worn a previous artist out with frustration, her mother commissions a new young female artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), to finish the job. Marianne accompanies the reclusive Héloïse on long, contemplative walks in attempts to observe her more closely, committing furtive glances to memory before secretly setting about painting her portrait in the privacy of her own room. Resting on this simple but intriguing premise, Sciama sets about igniting a fire under the belly of their burgeoning relationship as she delivers a hauntingly seductive tale of forbidden love.
Portrait is a spellbindingly beautiful film shot with a painterly palette and well-considered framing that, appropriately, accompanies an artist’s tale. But its Sciamma’s attention to timing that really sets this romantic drama apart. Her camera lingers in all the right places and for the perfect amount of time. Portrait is a slow burn, intentionally and painstakingly so, it demands patience and investment—but look and listen carefully, because everything matters. For example, crucial to Portrait’s immaculate structure is the effective use of music which begins seemingly piecemeal and fragmented only to be carefully reassembled, revealing one of the most astonishingly powerful final scenes to a movie I’ve experienced in a long time. Do yourself a favour and bask at the fire of Sciamma’s film, because it is a masterpiece.