Film Review – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a meticulously done film of scenes of time passing that put together a thoughtful and intriguing idea about romance and camaraderie in extraordinary situations. In the 18th century Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a female painter, is sent to paint the portrait of a young noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to send to her prospective husband to see if he will agree to marry her. This is made difficult with Héloïse refusing the sit for a painting so Marianne has to do it in secret. Marianne pretends to be a companion to get closer looks at Héloïse’s face but also with an artist’s hope to capture the essence of who she is.

There is an air of melancholy and of foreboding of death throughout this film, starting early when it is stated that Héloïse’s sister, the original fiancée, killed herself rather than marry an unknown. That Héloïse may do the same is made clear, directly by her mother La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) confiding in Marianne, but also in the way Héloïse moves and comports herself. She shows ambivalence about if she lives, both in the way she looks around with detachment to all that there is and statements she makes that leave you unsure what she is really thinking. This mood never really leaves the film even as events change between these two woman. In fact, in many ways it exacerbates the issue in that they know their time together is short, be it due to Héloïse’s marriage or her death. It keeps the tension rising and in a weird way it is liberating that society can be fought against even if that response is also self-destructive.

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While there is the story of the painting being created, and an issue that the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) is dealing with that the other two are helping her with, there is not a straightforward plot or even clear character development. We have a lot of long takes that sometimes kept my curiosity going but left me wondering where they were leading. Mostly the film just cut between random moments of Marianne and Héloïse and sometimes Sophie, seeing them simply being. Sciamma is minimalist in her dialogue (something I later learned is a staple of all her films to date) that left me wondering how these women would start a relationship. Then when it happened it felt slightly sudden and I will admit it did not jump out at me as completely the right time, yet not wrong exactly either. It left me interested about the journey we were going to take with them, but not certain I cared about what would happen to them together on a emotional level. Then, after the film was over, thinking back on it, I realized that I had become invested in their relationship and I wasn’t even certain how the heck it had happened!

It is in a way still a mystery about how Sciamma is able to let time pass without it being spelled out. Things start to change, hints and portents of things to come are teased, but not in a hokey way. She lets her actresses exist in a space and through the small actions they start to become something unexpected. Be it a simple glance, a game of cards, or something more intimate, she lets life just go on and, while there was no big moment, the sum of its parts is what really builds in this film and in the lives of these women.

Men are absent for most of the film and, if they do appear, are as servants or faces in a crowd. It makes clear that this is a woman’s story even if the world they are living in is affected by male ideas and societal norms, some spoken, some not. It is a woman, La Comtesse, who is the one pushing for the marriage of her daughter. She even has some legitimate reasons for wanting the marriage as it will also give her some freedom, and she thinks it will do so for her daughter as well. It gives the movie a freedom to not have an obvious antagonist for us to focus on, someone who is hurting Marianne and Héloïse; it just lets us feel for them.

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Much should be said about Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, and Luàna Bajrami who work together to be about issues for women but never are defined by just those ideas. Their characters can just work and talk together about nothing and sometimes important things or just let their emotions express themselves on their faces that we slowly start to feel for them even if they are never clearly defined and that is what makes them so interesting to observe. I can never say I know them but I know enough that it made me happy to spend time with them, be it the darker moments or the moments of pure joy.

This movie surprised me on so many levels that it became delightful the more and more I have thought about it. I do not feel that I can make clear why all of what Céline Sciamma has put on screen works but it does. It is slow but never dull, unclear in what it is doing but not confusing. She has created emotional truths out of small moments with her actresses that build in your head in ways you may not realize and leave you in wonder at all that has happened.




Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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