Celine Sciamma is a director whose work I think shows the true universal appeal of international cinema. Through films like Girlhood and Tomboy, she has created films that have a real universal feel. This even extends to films she wrote but didn’t direct, notably the brilliant My Life as a Courgette. So the second I heard about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it jumped up my most anticipated list. The film itself is a work of tragic beauty.
The film takes place in 18th Century France with painter Marianne being hired to paint a portrait of Heloise, who is to be married to a Milanese nobleman. Whilst Heloise has not posed for portraits before, Marianne has to paint her based on glances whilst acting as a walking companion. As the film goes on, Heloise is told what is happening and agrees to pose for Marianne, resulting in a romance forming between the two. What Sciamma always does brilliantly in her films is show the power in the little moments, and that holds true here. The little moments where the characters bond, such as playing a game of snap, say so much about the characters and their growth and no director does these moments as well as Sciamma. There is also interesting commentary in here about gender roles at the time with the portrait being commissioned for the person Heloise is going to marry and Marianne having to submit her paintings in her dad’s name. This is a rare film that does not treat marriage as a wholly positive thing, showing how, in these circumstances, marriage is a destructive act. Along with these elements, there is a strong element of the story of Orpheus and Euridice throughout the film, adding to the tragic elements at the end, giving the film even more power, and there are great moments showing the importance of companionship between women, not just with Marianne and Heloise but with Sophie, the maid, and a friendship that forms with her.
The performances as well are excellent throughout. Before I get into specifics, I have to mention that the movements of the cast and the way they are directed by Sciamma has a precision to them that adds to the power of the film. Every movement is carefully orchestrated to build on the characters and so much of the power of the film comes through the body language of the cast. The chemistry between Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel is excellent, there being a deep love that comes across between the two, making the romance have this intense beauty throughout. Merlant does a great job at showing her feelings of guilt over lying to Marianne and her own insecurity over her painting at the start, feeling that the initial painting she does is not an accurate representation of her art, her confidence in her skill growing as her affection for Heloise grows and by the end of the film she sells the pain over the way the relationship ends. Haenel meanwhile does so much with small gestures and changes in her body language, the way her body language changes as she grows more comfortable with Marianne, and by extension with other people, says so much about the character growth and is hard to describe because of the aforementioned precision in the way the characters move and the last scene with her in is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen in a long time because of the power of Haenel’s performance.. Luana Bajrami and Valeria Golino are excellent as well in their roles, adding to the overall power of the film through their relationships with Marianne and Heloise.
The technical elements are probably the most impressive of a Sciamma film to date. The costume design is of particular note, the use of primary colours for Marianne, Heloise and Sophie being of particular note, working with the cinematography to create the feel of a classic painting throughout the film. I also loved the use of music in the film, in that there really isn’t any. All of the music in the film is diegetic which adds both a thematic resonance with the isolation felt by Heloise and makes the music sound louder when we do hear it. The cinematography as well is excellent, the colour grading making all the primary colours in the film have this beautiful vibrant nature and the way it works with Sciamma’s direction frames Marianne and Heloise together in a way that adds to the romantic feel of the film.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is another reminder of just how good a director Celine Sciamma is. Everything about this film has a sense of precision and love that gives every frame of the film a haunting power, this precision going through to the performances and how the small details say so much about the characters. The more I think about the film the more I find things to praise and just reaffirmed by love of Sciamma’s films.
My Rating: 5/5