Portrait of a Lady on Fire brings the heat
New film proves to be a timeless romantic narrative
Every so often, a film comes along and leaves a viewer so beside themselves and unsure of what to do once the film has ended. So much so that when one knows it’s about to end, there’s no choice but to grip the seat handle with the desperate hope that the film will keep going. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, director Celine Sciamma revives the erotic historical romance genre with a piece that achieves singularity like no other. Simply put, this film is masterful in every possible way.
The film, set in 18th century France, follows young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who goes to the island of Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). However, Marianne must paint the portrait in secret, as Héloïse does not want to be painted. In fact, Héloïse doesn’t even like her face to be seen by anyone. That is until Marianne looks at her.
Restraint is in abundance in this picture and is a key factor in how the film immerses viewers into its environment. Throughout the film there is virtually no music, a stylistic choice that is one of the smartest in recent memory. Seeing as Héloïse’s life is absent of music due to her restrictive mother, silence is all she knows. She’s forced to live a subdued quiet life and Sciamma makes sure that the audience feels this absence as well.
This silence manifests itself into a sadness that is masterfully captured by the performances of Merlant and Haenel. They don’t have to speak at all in order for us to understand how their characters are feeling. In fact, there isn’t a lot of spoken dialogue between the two of them. Everything they have to say to each other is conveyed through their eyes. One of them can look at the other and all the desire is right there in their face. It’s a true testament to the talent of these actresses to be able to convey such impactful performances with only a brief moment of eye contact.
The film benefits from the female gaze of Sciamma’s direction and writing. This romance between Marianne and Héloïse is not fetishized in any way. Women are seen in this film as not objects, but as multi-faceted people. While this is a period piece, the conflicts the women experience still reign true today. The women ultimately desire autonomy and they want to be seen as more than pretty objects. Even when Héloïse is seen and desired as she wants to be by Marianne, they both know that they still have to inhibit themselves to meet society’s standards.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels timeless already. A love story like no other, this film will surely go down as one of the greatest romantic narratives ever to be put on film.