I just returned from seeing PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE for the second time in as many days.
It’s the type of film that leaves you robbed of breath for half the runtime.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is a simple film. It follows a painter in France in the 1700s who has been commissioned to draw the portrait of another woman so that the woman can be passed off to be married. What follows is one of the most thoughtful and compelling takes on love, friendship, sexuality, and the impact of art to be portrayed in any film ever.
Director and writer Céline Sciamma crafts a deeply personal story here, so much so that it would be disingenuous to not consider the extent to which being both an artist and a lesbian has affected her life experience and worldview. So often, because stories being shared about the LGBTQ+ lifestyle are tasked with being told by hetero people, there appears to be inauthenticity in the storytelling, but that is no problem with Sciamma helming this project.
Her style is starkly minimalist, both in her use of dialogue and the way in which she reveals action on the screen. The first 15 minutes or so feature very little dialogue purposefully, and Sciamma does what so few filmmakers are able to today: She shows restraint. Filmmakers are oftentimes so interested in getting to the “exciting moments” of their stories that they neglect to carefully pace their tales and let tension build and their actors breathe and live in their space. That is no issue in PORTRAIT, and much of that has to do with Sciamma’s careful direction and writing.
The film is smartly edited by Julien Lacheray. Sciamma delights in perfectly framing her shots in adequate spots to just let the action play out from one angle, as opposed to needlessly having extraneous and frantic cuts (see: the nightmare that was BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY). There’s also a brilliant editing technique that happens frequently through the film: As opposed to letting a scene feel like it’s reaching its natural conclusion, quite often, the film cuts away a moment sooner than you would expect from a typical film. Sciamma respects her audiences enough to know we don’t have to see EVERYTHING happen, and instead, she shows just enough of a scene that your brain is able to fill in the rest. This style of editing and filming felt so unique, and upon re-watch, I became obsessed with feeling out when the editing would cut away a second early.
Adèle Haenel as Héloïse and Noémie Merlant as Marianne are both exceptional as the vessels Sciamma uses to tell her tale about love and art. Haenel’s eyes flicker as Héloïse with trepidation, excitement, and nervousness for much of the first half of the film. Sciamma captures Haenel’s gaze brilliantly, letting her (and Merlant’s) eyes say everything they need to. It takes Héloïse time to let down her reservations and barriers. She’s never quick to reveal herself and starts out the film very distrusting, holding her cards close to her chest until she no longer can. Her character arc is nuanced as she brims with emotion and love, similarly to the way Florence Pugh is always bursting with emotion (I kept thinking as I was watching the film that if an American filmmaker made PORTRAIT, Pugh would probably have been cast to play Héloïse). Her line reading of “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” was about as good as acting gets.
Merlant as Marianne has to give the less showy performance of the two lead actresses, but that doesn’t at all imply that the work she does is any less impressive. She has extremely pensive eyes, always looking deep in thought. She spends much of the film studying and analyzing Héloïse and though she seems more emotionally sturdy than Héloïse, when she finally is given the opportunity to really display her emotional depth, she 100% commits and delivers passionate soul-stirring gut-punches. Her character is also used through the film to analyze the way in which love and feeling connected to another person so deeply infiltrates and influences the art that artists create. Once Marianne gives in to her feelings, the one she loves can be found in everything she creates moving forward.
Even the smaller roles, like Valeria Golino as Héloïse’s mother and especially Luàna Bajrami as Sophie, the housemaid, are acted superbly. Bajrami, especially, is integral in driving home the point about the way in which women depend on each other’s friendship and should be supportive of each other. The bond that Héloïse, Marianne, and Sophie all grow to share over their brief time spent together is beautiful and the three of them are together in some of the most profound scenes in the whole film (one is a debate over the reason Orpheus turns back and looks at Eurydice in ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE, one is a bonfire that the three women attend, and one is a particularly harrowing and unforgettable medical procedure that Sophie endures with the support of Héloïse and Marianne by her side).
Perhaps, outside of the performances, the most wonderful part of PORTRAIT is the use of music (or lack thereof) through the film. PORTRAIT has no score. There is no music in the film, except when characters are actually experiencing music in real time (one character hears another play piano, characters attend an orchestra performance, etc). The previously mentioned scene at the bonfire is one of the most viscerally moving scenes I’ve seen in any film ever and its use of music makes that possible. Similar to how the second verse of Kendrick Lamar’s “LOVE.” manages to perfectly capture what being in love feels like, the musical sequence at the bonfire in PORTRAIT perfectly captures the overwhelming warmth of falling in love.
Many people haven’t been able to see PORTRAIT yet, outside of those who live in major cultural hubs, which is a bit disappointing, to say the least. Especially after PARASITE’s big night at the Oscars, I was hoping it would become easier for people everywhere to see foreign films, regardless of location. Unfortunately, for all the hand-wringing that comes from people on the internet about how audiences don’t care about supporting women or films that accurately and truthfully display LGBTQ+ experiences (made by people who have the authority to make said films), films like this still aren’t seen enough and supported. They have enormous hurdles to climb in order to experience visibility. This is a film so incredibly deserving of being viewed, and it really is a shame that when I recommend it to my friends who don’t live in New York City, they complain they don’t have the means to watch it.
It’s not a stretch to say that PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is one of the six best films from the 2010s. I would certainly hear an argument for it to be the best film of 2019 (though I probably liked UNCUT GEMS from 2019 a bit more and think PARASITE may be a SLIGHTLY better film). It glistens with love and life, feels wholly authentic, and has so much to say about identity, sexuality, friendship and the power of art. It features multiple unforgettable sequences and had a finale that caused me to suddenly burst into tears. I can’t stop thinking about it. It won’t soon leave me. Run to see it if you can.