Portrait of a Lady on Fire is smouldering, sensational

Director: Céline Sciamma Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino Running Time: 120 minutes



“Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?”

So whispers the besotted Héloïse in a fit of passion in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The exploration of that spark, that fierce and intense rush of feeling is central to the latest feature by Céline Sciamma, her own work continuing to evolve and innovate in exhilarating fashion here following the “accidental trilogy of youth” that was Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood. Love as shown here between painter Marianne and her subject Héloïse has that feeling of invention, the sudden arrival of something entirely new and brilliant and unique and though what emerges between these two can’t hope to last in the way that they would prefer, the depth of emotion and ideas brought to light by Sciamma and her excellent crew lifts Portrait into so much more than the typical Forbidden Romance.

In the late 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to a far-flung island in Brittany and tasked with painting the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), bereft and briefly home between stops in convent life and an arranged marriage to come in Milan. Amidst the crashing waves, the cold manor and the dire air of its occupants, a suitably gothic catch is attached to Marianne’s commission. Headstrong Héloïse, grieving the loss of her sister in unspoken but obvious circumstances and even more grieving the loss of her own freedom, refuses to be painted and has seen off one artist already, so her countess mother (Valeria Golino) has Marianne pretend to be her daughter’s chaperone. Gazing intently by day and slavishly painting her in secret by night, the fervent consideration Marianne gives her subject doesn’t take long to grow into something more, not least because all the while she is looking at Héloïse, Héloïse is looking back at her…

Gaze is a key element both in text and out in Portrait and Sciamma and co excel in portraying a gaze that is captivating but never leering. So often Sciamma keeps one or other of the leads smack center in the frame and the editing ensures that their eyelines are consistently matched, both with each other and often the audience. The result is incredibly intimate, accentuating the circumstances that Marianne and Héloïse are in, desperately close, no eyes on them but their own, we as viewers absorbing the same feeling. The performers compliment each other perfectly; Merlant maintaining a more stoic stance; reserved but bold and confident. while Haenel is more immediate, expressive, fierce with her face, but uncertain and wracked with inner conflict. Very Vivaldi. It makes for mesmerising viewing, their emotions building and brewing and clashing before bursting like a storm.

Every element of the filmmaking builds the tension between the two. Music is completely absent until suddenly it isn’t at select moments, setting senses alert. The cinematography by Claire Mathon makes the Brittanic island look vibrant, but a bit haunting and otherworldly; empty spaces and bold injections of colour, perfectly like a memory. The subtle script avoids cliches, the stakes are obvious for the time period and Héloïse’s imminent marriage, rather than get drawn too deeply into contrived conflict and we shan’t and we mustn’t, the story delves deeper into the characters feelings and, thanks to a well-chosen plot point which sees the countess away for a few days, gives them breathing space to grow and explore different ideas. Men are already absent almost completely in Portrait and with the countess away, having the couple share and discuss art or help a maid get an abortion is so much more engaging, thoughtful and feminist than setting them up against cackling villains or Big Drama would be. The sensuality and electricity is so powerful on the surface the Sciamma lays the groundwork for some simple but devastatingly effective set-up and pay-off work in the screenplay. The result is an slow-burn that explodes into a final 10 minutes that are sensationally affecting.

Few films this year could hope to match the intensity, the beautiful power and the masterful filmmaking on display in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Packed with images that will cling to the mind, it’s timeless but in technique still very fresh and innovative, a new romance for the ages, much like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that the film evokes. Reading the story with the maid, they discuss why Orpheus would turn around, dooming them to be apart forever. The maid considers Orpheus selfish, foolish. The lovers have different perspectives. Perhaphs Orpheus made “the poet’s choice,” not the lover’s, to always have Eurydice as a memory. Maybe Eurydice asked Orpheus to turn around. Maybe their love is so enormous, so strong, that it can only be contained in art, in poetry, in music, in memory. When love lights between two people the way it does in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, those people are changed irrevocably, marked by one another always. In that sense, they really have invented something, all for each other.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

About Luke Dunne

Luke is a writer, film addict and Dublin native who loves how much there is for film fans in his home county. A former writer for FilmFixx and the Freakin' Awesome Network, he founded Film In Dublin to pursue his dual dreams of writing about film and never sleeping ever again.

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