Portrait of a Lady on Fire
While love is a subject that has been explored infinitely in various art forms, its actual representation and portrayal are quite hard to achieve. The rom-com genres have produced millions if not billions in profit for studios, but these films usually take romance to mean the talking that two people do; however, it is in my viewpoint that the “falling in love” happens more in what is restrained and left unsaid. Such is the viewpoint of a great many romantic European films, which do not fear having scenes with scant dialogue. Celine Sciamma’s most recent film and winner of Best Screenplay at 2019’s Cannes Festival is a testament to this romantic perspective.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) takes place in late 18th century France, specifically in a small island in Brittany, where the young painter Marianne (Noemi Merlant) is tasked with painting a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) that would be sent to her suitor in Milan. Heloise does not want to be married and thus refuses to be painted, thus her mother (Valeria Golino) has Marianne pretend to be a companion for Heloise’s walks, all the while using their time together to study Heloise’s features and painting her from memory.
This film seems to become both infinitely complex and simple at the same time. As the emotions of each of the characters begin to develop, we as viewers begin to see the contradictions and complications that they bring about; however, it is thanks to the phenomenal acting and transparent directing that viewers are never lost in the longing looks or glances of the characters. As can be guessed, the studying of Heloise has Marianne fall in love with her, but it is not a temptation that seems obvious or clichéd; rather Sciamma takes her time to slowly chip away at the resistance that each of her characters might have. So encompassing is Sciamma’s restraint of having her character’s express themselves, that one is almost prompted to shout at the screen. And this is all done without a specific film score. The only music one hears in the film is diegetic, or happening naturally in the characters’ world. As such I was amazed at the capability that the film has of pushing one to relate to a specific feeling or plight that a character might be going through; this is only further evidence of the immense skill that Sciamma and her performers put forth. The lack of music also takes away a certain artificialness and theatricality to the film, allowing viewers to feel in a much more private and natural atmosphere.
However, because of its rather patient pace, this film might be deemed too slow and rather uneventful for many viewers. It is a film about emotions and looks, not one of action and sex, and as such it will contrast (rather refreshingly in my opinion) with the more blatant Hollywood films coming out these days. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is best enjoyed when one relishes in small details and flicks. And if one is patient enough to last through the slower first half, one is greatly rewarded with an emotionally explosive second half and a final tracking shot that will leave viewers agape and destroyed with Haenel’s acting prowess.
In the end, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a fantastic film, with a patience that allows for a boiling yet incredibly juicy emotional climax that will sweep viewers off their feet. Sciamma has crafted the type of film that inhabits oneself for days if not weeks to come, prompting an almost urgent necessity to go back and be with these characters all over again.