Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Breathtaking and Exhilarating Filmmaking

I thought that writing about Portrait of a Lady on Fire would be a very simple task: it is one of my favorite films of 2019, I have nothing but praise for it and I love it to death. But once I rewatched it in preparation for this review, I found myself at a dilemma: I can either sum up my feelings for this beauty of a film in a single word and simply say that it’s magic, or I can ramble on about it for pages and pages and go into detail about why I love it so much, but it seems to me that neither extreme does the film justice, saying too little or too much will either be insultingly insufficient or exaggeratedly expositional, so I will try my hardest to find balance between the two, and go into what makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire the modern masterpiece it is.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of a romance blossoming between an artist on a quest to paint a portrait of a client without her knowledge, and a young aristocrat who is soon to get married to her late sister’s suitor, played by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel respectively, and directed by Celine Sciamma. While it may be described as a forbidden love affair in late 18th century France, the film has so much more to it than romance; it is a film of two perfect strangers encountering and getting to know each other on the deepest level, it is a character study with two clashing perspectives and ideologies, an exposition of two women’s ideas and hopes as they clash and eventually, merge.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s cinematography stands out right from the opening scenes. To say that it is beautifully shot is a major understatement. It is breathtakingly gorgeous, treating our eyes before reaching our hearts and souls, every frame from this film could be printed and hanged in the most prestigious of art galleries and it would fit right in. Marianne on a small boat getting to the island where the story takes place, Héloïse running towards the sea after being let out of the house for the first time, a group of ladies around a bonfire singing in unison, Héloïse posing for a portrait, portraits being drawn, portraits getting burned, the two lovers embracing, the two lovers weeping, every single scene is shot to tightly grip the audience’s heart and it manages to do so perfectly. When you think the film’s cinematography peaked, along comes the next shot and stuns you again and again. It is, quite literally, awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping.

-          I have always wanted to do that.
-          Dying?
-          Running.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire belongs to a special category of romance films that are much more intimate, magical, and hopeful (yet realistic) than the rest of the bunch, and for films like these to work, certain conditions are always met, and this film is no exception. The two protagonists are thrown into a setting that they solely inhabit; even if other characters are there, they are only there to support their romance, not oppose it. This setting they inhabit is theirs only for a short while, as short a time as their romance itself. For the first two thirds of the film, Marianne and Héloïse interact as friends, or even as employer and employee, the first wants to finish her portrait and the latter wants a companion so she would be allowed to leave the house. Their conversations, while not casual, are light, and there is no intimacy nor depth, at least on the surface level. Meanwhile, their bond strengthens and so does their dependency on each other, but still, they do not know each other. Determined to change that, Marianne destroys the portrait she drew of Héloïse without her knowledge as she finally saw that it does not resemble her. Héloïse’s mother allows her five days to finish the portrait and leaves them alone in the island, and once allowed the privacy they so desired, their desires for intimacy and exploration of one another take form.

The final third of the film is brimming with passion and love, displaying Marianne and Héloïse’s romance at its peak: raw, warm and lustful. Their conversations are just as gripping as their physical intimacy, which resembles Carol (2015, Todd Haynes) and is nothing like Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche); while the latter is disgustingly exploitational in its display of sexuality, Carol and Portrait of a Lady on Fire exercise a certain elegant restraint which ultimately ends up being more enticing and passionate.

Aside from the romance between Marianne and Héloïse, which is the film’s main and ultimate concern, the film concerns itself and thoroughly discusses a number of other important subjects that vary from concepts of freedom to mortality and death. The reason Héloïse is getting married is because her sister committed suicide, leaving her a fate she never desired, and denying her a freedom that she so wished for, especially after leaving the convent. Marianne possesses that freedom but wishes for more, but what that is, she does not know. The two protagonists are so full of desires and dreams, but are happy with the small things, like a tiny meal of cheese and bread, playing cards or reading and discussing a novel. The subject that becomes a dilemma for them ultimately is mortality, and how to preserve the little bit of happiness they created together; if it’s through memory, a tune, a portrait or a page 28, nothing will be sufficient but one has to do with one can get.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, while a success among circles of cinephiles, is still almost an unknown film to the masses, and that is truly a shame. It is an important film, portraying love and passion in the most beautiful way, delivering a thrilling and thought-provoking ride enveloped in rich and gorgeous cinematography and masterful filmmaking. A modern masterpiece.


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