Portrait Of A Lady On Fire – Review

Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 1 minute, Director – Céline Sciamma

A painter (Noémie Merlant) closely observes a bride-to-be (Adèle Haenel) in order to make a portrait for her wedding without her knowing.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a work of art that communicates its points through a story about communication through art. Many of the interactions between the two central characters, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), are based around various arts; such as song, writing, storytelling and; more than anything else, art. The reason that the two meet is due to Marianne being commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse for her upcoming wedding. However, Héloïse is not to know about this, so Marianne must observe her closely by day in order to create the portrait in secret. 

As the two begin to spend more time together their relationship, instead of getting closer, begins to open. The beauty of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s screenplay is that it never asks ‘will they, won’t they?’ It asks ‘when will they?’ Throughout the film the viewer is left in breathless suspense as the pair wait for their moment to show their feelings. The question is how and when. From the moment they meet it’s clear that there’s love and passion between them, the film doesn’t hide this – and neither do the truly mesmerising performances of both Merlant and Haenel. Love and passion which burn bright throughout the film in a deeply poetic manner. If there’s a film that sums up the idea of something being ‘poetic’ it’s very likely this. 

With a rather small cast there’s a minimal amount of dialogue. A number of scenes simply focus on Marianne sketching the rough outline for her painting, or carefully sweeping the colours onto the canvas. Even the character’s longing gazes and the lingering shots of the wonderfully shot landscapes – thanks to the stunning cinematography – manage to keep the viewer in awe throughout the entire film. There’s an honest delicacy that lies throughout the entire film when it comes to Sciamma’s direction. What brings this honesty is the fact that this is clearly a film told entirely from the female gaze – almost every single figure who appears in the film is female. They understand what the film is aiming for, what Sciamma wants to achieve with the finished piece and the collaborative effort shines. Forming a stunning feature that captivates the viewer from the the very start to the very end. It would be very easy to spend many more hours with these two characters, in fact even just in the world of the film through the gaze that events are seen through.

Throughout there are many moments that feel reminiscent of Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (one of the best films of last year). However, instead of focusing on the harsh and angered breakdown, exclusion and isolation of the main character, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire focuses on the increasing adoration and revealing passion that the film displays. The moments of silence as sometimes all that can be heard are the natural surroundings, such as the crashing of waves, are some of the most effective moments of the film. The feeling that everything in the film is naturally happening and that what you’re watching is truly in the moment adds to the breathless suspense and hope that you feel all the way through the relationship. Everything comes together in the best possible way to create something authentic, genuine and heartfelt.

Never do any of the actions on-screen feel rushed or hesitant. Everything is perfectly timed and balanced so to emphasise the characters. The detail that they have, made stronger and more powerful by the fantastic performances, and their arcs make for a compelling study. Bold, passionate and caringly made by all involved. Portrait Of A Lady On fire is itself a genuine work of stunning art. 

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a work of art made with heaps of care and passion from all involved. Told from a unique and honest female perspective this is a stunning piece, the light of which will likely continue to burn brightly onto a number of best of the year lists.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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