Celine Sciamma’s fourth directorial effort, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” follows Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a painter who’s off to her newest assignment, which includes painting a portrait for a wealthy woman named Heloise (Adele Haenel) who is set to be married. Heloise has refused to cooperate with the previous individual assigned to paint her and Heloise’s mother, The Countess (Valeria Golino), informs Marianne that she must lie to Heloise. Specifically, Marianne must tell Heloise that she is merely a companion to Heloise and then proceed to paint the bride-to-be in secret.
Lies don’t end well, do they? Not only does creating a facade ensure that the initial interactions between Marianne and Heloise are rife with tension, but it also means that Marianne’s first painting is not up to her standards of quality. She must engage with the truth if she wants to paint her subject properly. She and Heloise will have plenty of time to get acquainted with each other’s true selves once The Countess leaves for a five-day vacation. What follows is a thoroughly riveting motion picture that eventually sees a captivating romance blossom between the two lead characters. Such romance would already be enough to make “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” an exceptional motion picture. But, much like how Kendrick Lamar delivers remarkable lyrics in addition to his unforgettable vocal abilities, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” isn’t content to just excel in one area.
This Sciamma directorial effort (she also wrote the screenplay) serves as an extremely thoughtful exploration of the way each of these women are enduring in a society that puts them into confining boxes simply based on their gender. This exploration is done in a manner that pushes men nearly entirely off screen. That’s very much to the benefit of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” It’s a decision that echoes how Sciamma’s debut feature, “Water Lillies,” nearly entirely eschewed adult characters in order to draw greater attention to its teenage protagonists. Just as “Water Lillies’” sense of focus brought viewers closer to its characters, so too does “Portrait’s” decision to focus exclusively on its female characters. We get a greater chance to become closer to Marianne, Heloise and servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami). In the process, we also get a deeper understanding of how these three distinctly drawn individuals try to maintain their own identity in the face of a society that wants to strip them of their own autonomy.
In the months since “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” debuted at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, much has been made about Sciamma’s gift for communicating so much without the aid of dialogue. At the risk of just repeating what everyone has already said ad nauseum, allow me to once again praise Sciamma’s talents in this department. Much like an evocative painting, Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon can create an immediately striking shot that you just wanna stare at for hours on end so you can appreciate every intimate detail. This is especially true of any of the visuals found in the sequences set in exterior environments. Since these places (especially a nearby beach) are shown to be havens where Marriane and Heloise are free to be themselves, these environments are rendered in a far more visually scrumptious manner than the intentionally confining interior locales.
When these two characters are wandering the nearby fields or just standing by the open ocean, their surroundings seem to go on forever. A vast domain of brightly colored objects fill up the frame and it’s all so beautifully rendered - especially in terms of the color palette - that you can totally understand why Heloise’s first inclination when she steps outside is to just run. Who wouldn’t want to race through such gorgeous locations? As if that weren’t enough, “Portrait’s” assorted stunning environments are captured through incredibly thoughtful camerawork. I simply love how Sciamma and Mathon quietly transport the viewer into the perspective of the characters in certain shots, like when Marianne is first following behind the then-mysterious Heloise for the first time. Such subtly excellent camerawork is one of the many ways “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” immerses viewers into its engrossing world.
Said world also includes the central romance, which is just emotionally intoxicating. All of the aforementioned elements of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” are plenty impressive in their own right, but it’s especially astonishing how well they all eventually come together to make the love between Marianne and Heloise all the richer. Sciamma’s script that deftly explores the perspective of both characters, the enveloping visuals, the enthralling performances, they all come together to form something truly unforgettable. Marianne and Heloise’s romance really is sublime in every regard. Even something as simple as these two characters just lying in bed together is told through cinematography that aches with richly drawn poignancy. Two figures forever told by society to not be themselves, to not follow their ambitions, now finding solace in each other’s love. These scenes, like the rest of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” are utterly beautiful to watch.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends … and watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website, landofthenerds.blogspot.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.