Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
director: Celine Sciamma | runtime: 121mins | drama, romance | language: French
Professional painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is sent to a desolate island to paint Heloise’s (Adele Haenel) wedding portrait. When Heloise’s Mother leaves the island, the two women must pass the time and eventually become close to one other.
There is something to be said about the closing shot of a film, the very best use it as a smart way to encapsulate the previous two hours and in doing so leave an imprint on their audience. That’s exactly what Sciamma does with hers, keeping within the film’s ‘show don’t tell’ format, letting the power of the final shot become a lasting image in your brain, one that says so much about the profound effect these two women have had on one another. But Portrait of a Lady On Fire is not just about it’s finale, it’s about the entire films patient and subtle approach to build one of the best romances you’ll watch all year.
Set on a desolate island, the film finds a lot of time to capture it’s beauty but also it’s isolation. Both sides of the setting are wonderfully paralleled in the relationship between Marianne and Heloise, as they both have moments of clarity in the crisp island setting, but also waste away in moments of boredom. But the moments of boredom allow for relationships to form, turning a game of snap into genuine excitement and using music to express the characters yearning for a more cathartic experience. Sciamma’s tenderness with all these moments can not be understated, finding beauty in the simplest of things while never causing you to get caught up in the boredom itself.
The film’s strongest hand is how it captures the importance of the silent communication, using looks and body language to build a foundation more so than words. The early stages of the film see Marianne pretending to be Heloise’s companion around the island, while also secretly studying her mannerisms in order to paint them later. She watches Heloise’s composure, the placement of her hands and more importantly tries to make her smile. But eventually the film makes a stunning transition from artistic observation to a look of desire and romance. It’s so subtle that you’re somehow surprised it happens, even though you have been waiting for it the entire film. This is something is exquisitely executed, using the genuine chemistry and attraction of it’s two leads to softly build a foundation and eventually using both camera and actors to capture more than just what’s on the surface but what people are feeling continuously.
It has to be said that for all the directors achievements, the two stars play their characters down to a tee. Marianne is as understanding as she is stoic, and Heloise’s pessimism is wonderfully undercut with sarcasm and an occasional youthful joy. They are both performed beautifully by Merlant and Haenel, who capture the complexity of emotion but also the deep-set love between the two characters. Even Luana Bajrami does brilliantly with what she is given, acting as innocent and welcome third wheel when they are passing the time, and even having problems of her own. The entire cast is wonderful, and with the camera so intimately invading their space it speaks volumes that all three performances are pitch perfect from beginning to end.
Throughout the film there is references to Orpheus and Eurydice, debating why Orpheus turned around to look at his wife, and whether it’s better to remember someone as you knew them rather than what they have become. This parallels so wonderfully to the latter stages of the film, as Heloise and Marianne are so caught in the moment they never think that it has to end. But with Heloise going off to marry a Milano man and Marianne set to leave, the parallel turns into a beautiful moment between the two and in turn keeps the discussion going in your own mind. This is just another layer to a wonderful story, and even questions your own opinions all while enticing you perpetually.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is subtle in execution but big in it’s pay off, and with too many romances going for the bold dialogue over authenticity these days, it’s a breath of fresh to watch a film so wonderfully capture longing and desire so effortlessly. While there is already no doubt this film has received a multitude of attention, it still cannot be praised enough. Sciamma has made a film that says so much in such a little way, and somehow makes a period romance that resonates with you till the very end.
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