If a painting could move, it would be Céline Sciamma’s heart-wrenching 2019 masterwork, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A slow, meditative love story that portrays the passion and intensity of a romance cut all too short, this film is a scorching inferno of intimacy between a painter (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel), enveloped in soft, muted pastels, marooned on a cerulean island. Its slow pace allows for the budding romance to grow naturally, with every flower that blooms from tense glances and tender kisses to be all the more rewarding. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a bittersweet masterpiece that thoroughly invests the viewer in a love they have only just been met with, but will feel like a love they’ve lived themselves.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant): a painter commissioned to paint a woman set to be wed named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). This is not the first time a painter has been commissioned to paint Héloïse, and in the beginning this task seems to be nearly impossible, as she refuses to be painted due to her distaste for being wed. Héloïse’s mother (La Comtesse), though, believes that Marianne will be able to break this streak of her daughter not being painted. The two women, accompanied by their servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), spend several weeks together, with Héloïse being unaware that Marianne is there to paint her until later on in her stay. Marianne’s tactic of sketching Héloïse in secrecy causes the spark within Marianne for her subject; brief glances at hands and ears provide small details about Héloïse’s appearance to not only replicate in the form of a painting, but slowly fall in love with. Once Héloïse is told of Marianne’s occupation and reason for being there, these small glances are attributed to the painter’s need for source material, though the viewer at this point knows that there is far more to these loving stares. The love between these two women begins to flourish as the film goes on; their flame is at peak. This motif of fire is one that is carried throughout the film, with burning paintings, crackling fireplaces, and dresses catching alight. A flame, no matter how hot it burns, though, will always go out, and Marianne eventually has to leave this island of blissful infatuation.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is gorgeous in every way possible: in its setting, its story, and its lack of a score. This lack of any sort of music to accompany the film is an interesting choice on Sciamma’s part, but it makes the movie all the more immersive. Ambient noise like crashing waves, paintbrush on canvas, and the aforementioned crackling fireplaces create their own form of music, and make the two brief occurrences in which music is used jarring and emotional. The story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is simple in its premise, and complex in its execution. Every feeling felt by Marianne and Héloïse creates this complexity, and is translated beautifully through Sciamma, especially through her writing. Lines like “do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something new,” emphasize these simple-yet-complex feelings; it cuts deep in its simplicity. I would say this movie is truly almost-perfect, with its only downfall being just how heavy it is. This is a movie that one needs to prepare emotionally for, which makes it a film that may be difficult to rewatch again and again, but even then that’s not much of a flaw. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French lesbian film that doesn’t rely on sex to sell it (*cough* Blue is the Warmest Color *cough* *cough*), but is rather driven by stunning visuals and heart-wrenching storytelling. I highly recommend this film to any lover of cinema, any lover of love, and anyone searching for the beauty in heartache.