PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW
Directed by: Celine Sciamma
Produced by: Veronique Cayla, Benedicte Couvreur
Written by: Celine Sciamma
Cast: Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Cinematography: Claire Mathon
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I haven’t seen any of Celine Sciamma’s previous films, but based on the romantic drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), she is a filmmaker of formidable power and vision. I believe this is her fourth feature film directorial release and it is as sumptuous, moving, exquisitely shot and constructed a love story as you are going to witness. Moreover, it is proof that the art of screenwriting, compared to many by-the-numbers Hollywood film productions, is NOT dead.
The story is very simple. At the end of the 18th century, a young painter, Marianne, (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to create a portrait of a young woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise is, as is the tradition of the time, required by her mother (Valeria Golino), to marry a Milanese nobleman. He needs to see the portrait in advance in order to agree to the wedding. The only catch is, the insular Heloise, does not want to be painted for all manner of understandable reasons. What this establishes is two very intriguing characters, both with different emotions and desires.
Following the beautifully rendered story foundation, what follows is a magnetic series of scenes which subtly push these two empathetic characters together. Marianne is the artist who, at first keeps her distance, spying and analysing Heloise. Heloise is cool, sensitive and a prisoner on the Brittany island, trapped by the waves of the sea and her mother’s insistence on a society wedding. Over the space of a few days the walking companions become drawn to each other both artistically and emotionally. But, it’s no sordid desire for lust, rather a respectful and honest joining in romance. We, as the audience, literally see love grow before us thanks to some incredible acting from the leads.
Often the cinema critics will heap praise on a film and I will wonder what they have been watching. However, in regard to both Parasite (2019) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the plaudits are so well deserved. Both are brilliantly written and shot works of cinema, that in the past may have been consigned to just the arthouse circuit. Further, given the film is about painting, it is unsurprisingly Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is framed, lit and composed with an eye for the artistic. Yet, it isn’t just the look and colour of the film that impresses. Sciamma and her cinematographer, Claire Mathon, also create a series of haunting shots which will be indelibly scorched on my mind.
In terms of the themes, the film is very powerful too. As well the notion of art as a means of representing love, the narrative explores concepts of female equality and solidarity. There is an interesting subplot involving a member of the household staff, which adds to the thematic texture. Furthermore, the performances by all the actresses are superb too as Sciamma directs with such confidence. I also liked that the critique of patriarchal society was implicit rather than didactic. Also subtly realised are the tasteful love scenes, which never feel exploitational. My only minor criticism is that the opening hour could, arguably, have been trimmed slightly. However, what do you leave out of a film as beautifully composed, delicately written and emotionally compelling as Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)? I, a mere mortal, am not qualified to say in the face of such mesmerizing cinema.