Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019) – film review

2nd March 2022 · 2010s, 2019, Film

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is not just a film about love and desire, but a film about art – and the symbiosis between subject and painter.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

2019, France: 2hr 1min

Director: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

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I have been reduced to a sobbing, sniffling, shaking, shuffling shell of a man by a French film about two young women falling in love in a house by the seaside in the 18th century.

 
When did I turn into this person?  I don’t even like costume dramas!
 
Not just a film about love and desire – although it’s certainly that – it’s also a film about art: art’s capacity to capture moments, to tell stories, to channel emotions, to make memories. And the sensuality of the process of making art; the symbiosis between sitter and painter.
 
The setting is France, 1770. Marianne (Merlant), a painter, is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Haenel), a young woman who has just left the convent.
 
Héloïse is a reluctant bride to be and the catch is that Marianne must paint her without her knowing, so she observes her by day, painting her secretly.
 
Beautifully shot, gracefully paced, movingly written, elegantly designed and costumed, and perfectly acted, it has many magical moments that linger long after the final credits have rolled.
 
Not least of them is a moonlit gathering where the village women, two by two, break into an extraordinary, eerily celestial choral round as the ones at Marianne and Héloïse – find their gaze drawn to one another through the flickering flames of a fire on the beach.
 
In its wordless beauty and visual understatement, it’s the perfect encapsulation of desire. And of cinema at its most magnificent. 
 
This is very much a women’s film on both sides of the camera: written and directed by Céline Sciamma, shot by Claire Mathon and starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino, it contains only fleeting appearances by men – at the very beginning and very end.
 

Fortunately they allow men in to see it and people of any/both/all genders would be crazy to miss it.