Sometimes, film gives you the opportunity to fall in love with two people making their way through the world. Portrait of a Lady on Fire not only accomplishes that goal, but it makes you feel dirty in the process. To be part of something so intimate and raw, it feels like we watch a love story unlike any in the past decade. The story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) makes you believe in the power of love, lust, and obsession. It’s a beautiful story, but for the two women, their lives intertwine hundreds of years before they could ever truly be together.
Directed and written by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows a young painter (Merlant) sent to an island off the coast of France. Given the difficult task of crafting a portrait without letting her subject (Haenel) know, the two women quickly become drawn to each other. More than just a physical relationship, the women connect as they challenge each other to reveal truths about themselves. Sciamma instantly becomes a director to watch, establishing her ability to tell beautiful and subtle moments with an incredibly light hand. Portrait of a Lady on Fire never forces its lessons on its audience, and the characters are so enthralling, you fall head over heels.
Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon capture many of the most evocative images of the year. Even more stunning, they use the camera to communicate Marianne’s eye for art. Each frame feels like it belongs in The Louvre, hanging alongside the great artists. Few cinematographers capture so much emotion and artistic merit within a single shot. Mathon does so over and over again. The final shot of this film was easily the best in cinema from 2019. Mathon will surely become a master within the film community for the next two decades. We could be looking at our next Deakins or Hall.
Even more stunning than the craft, Portrait of a Lady on Fire brings together the best LGBT performances since Brokeback Mountain. Merlant shines from her first moments on screen, communicating a well of pain that exists beneath the surface. Yet Haenel’s long stretches of non-verbal acting steal the show. Even the way the actresses share the screen feels complimentary. The two play off each other to perfection, and their chemistry feels electric. Portrait of a Lady on Fire never becomes graphic, especially compared to the controversial Blue is the Warmest Color, but the erotic nature of their relationship cannot be ignored. It’s a stunning relationship and you can feel the actresses giving themselves over to the characters.
It’s impossible to ignore the search for truth and love within the film. Oftentimes, the very best art comes with sacrifice. Instead, you feel their love and passions slip through their fingers because of when they lived and the worlds they were born into. Sciamma comments on the limiting artistic acceptance women feel within the world, and in an awards season where women directors have been ignored, it’s hard to disregard the sentiment. Yet she expertly navigates the film to an emotional and visual crescendo that will make you melt.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire earns its beautiful moments, especially as Sciamma opts to use subtly as a tool to highlight the constraints of the era. She accomplishes something special as the story builds so perfectly on itself. A simple look from one of her women can tell more about their feelings and frustrations than any dialogue could express. Masterful filmmaking like this rarely comes along, and Sciamma’s written and visual triumph cannot be ignored.