Portrait of a Lady On Fire sparked some intrigue with critics and film enthusiasts when it was nominated for best international film at the Golden Globes, but was snubbed for the Oscar nom in the same category. But since its debut and win for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the film has been dominating conversations in the lesbian and LGBT film lovers circuit. And now that the film has gained a wider release in the United States, it is becoming clearer why the title is echoing louder and louder.
The film is a stylish, understatedly powerful story about first love, friendship, free will, and more themes that are more than relevant now, as they were in the film’s setting of late 18th century France. We follow portrait painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant), as she travels to an isolated island in Brittany, France, to complete a wedding portrait of the elusive aristocrat Heloise (Adele Haenel). She is the second artist brought to the island to paint the portrait that would be sent to Heloise’s future husband as a confirmation of their marriage, as the first had left unable to do his job. Marianne uncovers the reasons behind this, as well as the abandoned first attempted portrait itself, which is uncannily ruined with the face smeared away. To hopefully get the job done this time and get her daughter wed, Heloise’s mother disguises Marianne as an assistant to take her on walks, relying on the artist to paint from memory after their daily outings.
However, the two develop a deeper bond than expected over the course of their several days together. An agonizingly slow, passionate romance develops between them. The empty space between their bodies in every frame seems like a chasm, growing ever wider, until it disappears altogether. The relationship between the two leads is so well built, the chemistry palpable, as we slowly get to learn more and more about each character’s quirks and values.
The setting for these characters to fall in love could not be more perfect. The ocean, rocky shores, steep cliffs, and the nearby fields are a constant presence, adding to the beauty of what the characters experience. Their isolation is palpable, as well as the silence in between short bursts of dialogue. What isn’t said is as important as what is said, making this a film heavily reliant on symbolism and performance, thus requiring an attentive eye when watching.
Merlant and Haenel’s nuanced performances fill in the gaps of what we don’t learn through clear exposition, using body language and gazes to communicate the depths of the character’s emotions and relationship to one another. Their names haven’t quite reached the states yet, but will likely be making more appearances soon as the film picks up momentum. Luana Bajrami is the other main presence in Portrait as the wide-eyed servant of Heloise’s estate, who develops a close friendship with the two women. The three make a great trio, all of them very genuine in their feelings and natural in the world of the film.
Directer Celine Sciamma brings great vision to the story, avoiding typical cliches of on-camera romance and leaning instead towards something more raw. Sciamma is no newcomer to LGBT cinema, as she directed Girlhood, Waterlilies, and Tomboy, all French films with cult international followings. Her experience shows in the way that the romance between Marianne and Heloise is charged with eroticism, but doesn’t come across as sensationalist or sexualized. It’s another example that goes to show how important having lesbians in charge of telling lesbian stories is, because the difference feels tangible and makes it all the more authentic. And even if you aren’t a queer film connoisseur, there’s still a lot of style to be appreciated here. With beautiful cinematography, unexpected cuts, and clever framing, there is much to appeal to the cinematic eye.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 Stars
For those who are fans of French film, art house cinema, and period romance, I cannot recommend Portrait of a Lady on Fire enough. It will likely not hold much appeal for those looking for something faster paced and action packed, but there are plenty of other options in the theater for that. This is something special, something with heart that will connect deeply with anyone who is open to it.
The film is currently in limited release, gradually getting more screenings around the US once the Oscar noms make their final move out of theaters. It will be available online for streaming after its wide release, likely in a few months, though no date has been announced yet. The trailer for Portrait of a Lady on Fire can be seen below.