Film Review: ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ Burns With Quiet Fury
France found itself in the enviable position of having two exceptional, critically-adored films to submit for Best Foreign Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. They eventually settled on Les Misérables instead of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which is both understandable and hugely frustrating. The former crackles with urgency and social commentary, while the latter seems, at least on the surface, like staid arthouse fare. But don’t be fooled by the period costumes. Céline Sciamma’s sublime Portrait Of A Lady On Fire burns with a quiet fury.
The film begins with Marianne, brought to life by a star-making performance from Noémie Merlant, instructing a group of budding female painters in the late 18th century. A student mistakenly brings out one of Marianne’s own paintings, which triggers the memory of Marianne’s arrival on a remote island in Brittany many years ago. It turns out, she has been beckoned there to paint a young woman called Héloïse (a luminous Adèle Haenel). In the days before Tinder (and electricity), aristocrats would choose a wife based on their portrait. The catch is that Héloïse has no interest in posing or marriage.
Marianne slowly befriends the icy Héloïse and gets to work on her portrait, which she paints from memory, in secret. Unfortunately, deception doesn’t come easily to the artist and she eventually comes clean. That painting is scrapped and another begins, this time with Héloïse’s involvement. The women fall in love, in what feels like real time, after sharing lingering glances and long conversations. When their attraction eventually turns physical, Sciamma captures every kiss and caress with reverence and poetry.
In fact, few films have dissected queerness and gender with as fine a scalpel as Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Sciamma captures something extraordinary yet heartbreakingly familiar by documenting Marianne and Héloïse’s brief bubble of bliss. Squirreling away moments of happiness is an all-too common part of the queer experience. There’s no happy ending here and they both know it. They way the women come to terms with that realization — with a little help from Eurydice and Orpheus, no less — is raw and painfully real.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire also excels at handling gender. Marianne is headstrong and independent, but also tightly bound by the constraints of society. Héloïse, on the other hand, accepts her fate and submits to marriage with quiet abhorrence, but she’s not portrayed as a victim. She shows the fortitude and inner strength of a superhero to soak up every second of a happiness that she knows is fleeting. And then there’s Sciamma’s artful gaze, which is a testament to the necessity of nurturing female directors. Nudity and sexuality has never been portrayed more exquisitely. The film is deeply erotic, but never titillating.
Just when you think Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has pulled its last emotional punch, the director delivers three endings, each more heart-wrenching than the last. I haven’t found the final scene of a love story this affecting since Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. The combination of Sciamma’s direction and a pair brilliant lead performances is potent, while the cinematography (courtesy of Claire Mathon) and score are revelatory. Every facet of this film is as meticulously composed as Marianne’s portrait. It is a work of art that is both timely and timeless.