‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is stunning, brilliant

Photo courtesy of Neon

French filmmaker Céline Sciamma (“Tomboy”) brings an eighteenth century oil-painting to life in the dramatic romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Though the movie saw a limited release to U.S. theaters in Dec. 2019, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’’ was widely released on Feb. 14, 2020. 

The period piece follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant, “Paper Flags”), a young Parisian painter who is commissioned to produce the wedding portrait of a noble woman. The subject of the painting is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, “Love at First Fight”), a girl pulled out of a convent after her sister’s tragic death and destined to be married to a far away Milanese nobleman. 

Héloïse is unwilling to be sent off to some stranger, wishes that she could return to her convent and has already scared off another portraitist. Instead of being rude to Marianne, however, Héloïse begins to develop a friendship and then something more with the painter. 

Much of their romance is built on quiet gazes. Marianne studies Héloïse in order to paint her portrait, but Héloïse dares to study her back with an intensity that is palpable. 

The film takes place over just eleven days. While it seems impossible that such a passionate connection could have formed so quickly, the film is able to create a world where the romance instantly feels real. Merlant and Haenel have an undeniable chemistry and both deliver subtle yet intense performances. Sciamma penned a minimal script, yet so much is communicated with a bitten lip, the twitch of an eyebrow or a trailing glance. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” understands the female gaze and has no problem exploiting that. 

While the movie is first and foremost a heated romance, it also portrays rarely discussed experiences of women at the time. The cast of characters is small but entirely made up of women. Men appear on screen fewer times than can be counted on one hand. Still, the power men hold, however absent they may appear to be, is unmistakable. 

There are of course conversations about the contract and expectations of marriage, as many period pieces address, but “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’’ dares to explore more. In a particularly gut wrenching side plot, one of the girls becomes unwantedly pregnant, and the many ways by which women of the time attempted to terminate pregnancy are featured. 

Many movies tradeoff style and substance, Sciamma refuses to compromise, and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’’ excels at both. 

Set in Brittany, on a small island off the northwest coast of France, the film is naturally breathtaking. Much of Marianne and Héloïse’s scenes
take place on the beach, where the clear lines of horizon, surf and sand are marred only by
jagged cliffs. 

While the landscape obviously lends itself to beauty, the artful cinematography of Claire Mathon (“Stranger by the Lake“) elevates the movie to a true masterpiece. Mathon took the subject of portraiture and was able to carry the theme through the whole film. Each scene is set up like an eighteenth century painting. Like the blur of an oil painting, the film is never sharp. The lighting in every scene is impossibly soft and never seems to come from a specific source, a technique that allows Marianne and Héloïse to seem to glow at some points. The resulting product is a movie that is impossible to look away from.  

Forgetting no part of the cinematic experience, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’’ takes full advantage of sound design. The movie is astonishingly quiet, something that goes largely unnoticed until the silence is broken. This creates a sort of tension throughout the entire film, and allows louder moments more gravity. Marianne’s brushstrokes scraping across the canvas, the roaring of the ocean as it crashes against cliffs and the crackle of a bonfire turn familiar scenes into a sensory, visceral experience. Céline Sciamma has proven herself to be a deliberate and thorough filmmaker with a fresh, artistic vision. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a stunning cinematic experience that is technically, thematically and emotionally stunning.