Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Directed By Celine Sciamma

Starring – Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami

The Plot – In 18th century France a young painter, Marianne (Merlant), is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Haenel) without her knowing. Therefore, Marianne must observe her model by day to paint her portrait at night. Day by day, the two women become closer as they share Héloïse’s last moments of freedom before the impending wedding.

Rated R for some nudity and sexuality


– Top class production design. In setting this as a particular time period piece, Sciamma and company have their work cut out for them. Not only in articulating the styles and scenery of the age, but also in the consciousness of 18th century France, which saw its own uniqueness that was culturally ahead of its time. The radiance from colorful gowns, jaw-dropping landscapes, and interior set designs bring more subliminally to the creativity of the story and characters than I was previously expecting, and better channel the mentality of an age where women were prisoners in someone else’s love story. The rich vibrancy in visual tones and textures convey a geographically teleporting experience, and better help to establish weight within the story’s time frame that is consistently inescapable.

– Less is more. There is no musical score to “Portrait of a Lady On Fire”, a decision that Sciamma has credited in absence to instead cater to the rhythm of the human psychology, both in entrancing movements of the body, as well as the choreography of the camera. This is as close to anything that I’ve ever seen in conjuring up audio enhancement as a physical property from within the environment, allowing it to transcend its place as a film into an expressive slice of life. Sure, there are the occasional instances of in-frame musical performance throughout the film, but it’s incorporated in such a way that feels honest to its inclusion, both tonally and conceptually, instead of outside sources beyond the camera and production who are intruding on the magic of the moment being constantly maintained in each frame. It’s one of those rare instances where no music goes a long way in absorbing as much about the dynamic between characters as we can, and proves that the loudest beat of all is the heart supplanted by two characters sharing the same pulse.

– Flawless direction. One of the biggest snubs that I can already see happening at the 2020 Oscars is a lack of Best Director nomination for Celine Sciamma, who incorporates some profound touches of tapestry into her already masterful visual presentation. Aside from immersing you into the mentality of a painter’s vantage point, with all of its unorthodox angles and abstract strokes, the film equally expresses the importance of the connection to the model, which only then will make for the most meaningful depiction. As Marianne and Heloise spend more time together, and the two develop such a riveting chemistry in such a short sample of time, we notice that the painting gets stronger and more detailed because of such. It takes someone like me, who knows absolutely nothing about art painting, and teaches me about the subtlety in differences between the first draft of this painting and the final one, fleshing out much about the craft that the film approaches with a valuable importance. Marianne’s talents feel very much like the one in a million blessing that they rightfully should, and it proves that this director did her homework in capturing the essence of the craft.

– Earth-Shattering performances. In watching the work of Merlant and Haenal constantly take me on a roller-coaster of emotional resonance, the connection of their bond is displayed in a rare example where art rarely imitates life. These are two women who in real life were actually romantically involved with one another, and the very same tenderness and chemistry persisted in their home lives transfers wonderfully to the screen for some surreal moments. It gets to the point where the leading ladies are so believable in the rhythm of their speech, as well as the physicality of their interaction, that it often got pleasantly uncomfortable for how two ladies who are no longer involved together must still get past it all as romantic interests within the world of film. For their performances, there’s no shortage of tears, anguish, or longing that weighs heavily in the stability and control of their characters, and soon the inevitability of a world not ready to change for them offers a stirring juxtaposition for the ladies that conjures up much of the fire burning deep below. Finally, it was the ocular depth of the duo that spoke the loudest in the way each of them viewed the other as the film persisted, and told as much in a single look or stare as you will get in a one-hundred word diatribe. It brings forth no shortage of scene-stealing moments for either, and attains a level of believability for its love story that could almost never be duplicated in neighbors of the genre.

– Intoxicating visual circumference. Many key movements help capture the immensity of the French countryside for the beauty in imagery for the film, but none more effective than the desire to shoot the film entirely in 8K, to capture the vibrancy of contemporary cinematography. The splashes of colors, both in wardrobe and foreign landscapes, supplant a three-dimensional outline that makes them pop for the eyes more consistently than expected in a film taking place during the Victorian era, but the immensity of capture in each frame keeps us consistently grounded in story setting, which in turn disallows our romantic interests to ever escape the world that they found each other in. No shot ever feels wasted or unimportant to the overall themes of the screenplay, and throughout two hours of visually meaningful cinema, we combine enough artistic merit to easily make this one of the more beautiful presentations against any and every Oscar contender.

– No boys allowed. This is almost entirely the case in the movie, as with the exception of a single scene involving a single line of dialogue, there are no men anywhere to be found in the entirety of this picture. This is obviously meant not to take away from the connection that dominates the forefront of the movie’s attention, but I also feel like it is reserved for just the right moment when its insertion feels the most meaningful to what’s taking place. My mind stalls when I try to compare this direction to anything other film in recent memory, and during an age when male actors are still getting paid twice as much for a starring role, it’s refreshing to see a female director who takes initiative first when being the change that she wishes to see in the world.

– Equality. According to Celine Sciamma, “the film is a love story based on equality. In other words, it is not based on hierarchies and relationships of power and seduction that exist before the encounter. The feeling of a dialogue that is being invented and that surprises us”. The whole film is maintained by this principle in the relationships between the characters. The friendship with Sophie, the servant, which goes beyond the class relationship. The frank discussions with the Countess, who herself has desires and aspirations. It all works in Sciamma wanting solidarity and honesty between the characters, and keeps pointless deception, which is often only used to create the third act distancing trope, away from a film that treats its minutes with valuable face value.

– The romance. Aside from the impeccable chemistry, which I mentioned previously, Sciamma’s intention seems to be crafting a film that articulates the highs and lows associated with falling in love. There, her direction focuses on confusion, hesitation and the teased romantic exchange. Secondly, to write the story of the echo of a love affair, of how it lives on within us in all its scope. There, her direction focuses on remembrance, with the film as a memory of that love. Likewise, the film is designed as an experience of both the pleasure of a passion in the present and the pleasure of emancipatory fiction for the characters and the audience. This dual temporality, for Sciamma, allows the viewer to experience the emotion and to reflect on everything that has transpired within it. It illustrates a multi-dimensional facet with love that other romantic films can’t even scratch the surface on, and makes this one of the more nourishing captures because every step feels crucial.

– Symbolism. There are two instances on this topic, both for completely different intentions. The first, without spoiling anything, is a constant apparition that Marianne sees, which is only clarified once the whole ride of the movie is over. What’s so intelligent about this is we know it to be something important for the way it weighs so heavily on her mental stability, but we don’t know its intention until the clarity washes over us like the coldest waters. The other one deals with the couple’s unmistakable similarities to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which gives the film an ample amount of supplemental depth to prove that love, even in Victorian times, shouldn’t just exist between a man and a woman. None of Celine’s thematic intentions ever feel heavy handed, nor do they ever feel spoon-fed to audiences in a way that makes them feel like they didn’t earn the prize for paying attention.

– Meticulous pacing. This is usually a negative for me, as movies with testing pacing often don’t do enough to justify their sluggish storytelling for the entertainment of the audience. With this film, however, the patience exerted within every angle of the screenplay made this the rare experience of calculation that fed into the experience, instead of contradicted it for the worse. From the authenticity of truth associated with this gripping game of mental chess between the two ladies, to the developments of their union given ample time to materialize during those first few initial meetings, everything works when it rightfully shouldn’t, and reacts more to the ideal beats of life that aren’t always cinematic. For my money, nothing ever dragged too much to the point of boredom, and the minutes practically melted off like butter because of my undeterred investment in the togetherness of the protagonists.

My Grade: 10/10 or A+

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *