Portrait of a Lady on Fire is difficult to discuss, because until you have seen Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece of film-making, it’s impossible to understand the simplistic beauty of the piece.
Set in the 18 th century, artist Marianne ( Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of a young woman, Héloïse ( Adèle Haenel), to be sent to her future husband. Refusing to sit for the portrait, Marianne must get to know her under the guise of a walking companion, and paint in secret. As time goes on, the pair begin to trust each other, and a forbidden love blossoms between the pair.
The plot of Portrait sounds like so many other films that have come before it, but the exquisite beauty of every single shot make it an entrancing and memorable film experience, one I’ve rarely experienced. Haenel and Merlant are deeply convincing in their respective roles. Marianne, quiet, calm and confident. Haenel’s Héloïse on the other hand is caged fury, ready and waiting to explode. The pair are able to convey more in glances than many other love stories can convey in hours.
The secondary plot to the ill-fated lovers is a powerful female story, as house maid Sophie discovers she has an unwanted pregnancy. As the pair help Sophie deal with her own fate, it allows them to become equals to each other, and share in an intense female experience.
Director Sciamma holds the film’s gaze in perfect place (you can find numerous interviews where she talks about this female gaze online, I recommend her interview on the Ringer’s The Big Picture podcast) and each shot feels like a portrait of its own. Every shadow, every stroke of light is perfectly placed. With only three main characters and three main locations, the setting never feels stale, and each scene is seeping with emotion. It’s in fact in those scenes with no dialogue, with perhaps only one character in shot, that the audience truly feel the emotions and mood of the scene.
It’s hard to explain why a film about women sitting in rooms by crackling fires is such an emotional experience, but perhaps it’s because we so rarely see female stories, told and performed solely by women. Perhaps we so rarely see queer experiences portrayed in a non-exploitative manner. Perhaps the film just felt real.
I’m devastated I missed the opportunity to see Portrait on the big screen, but it’s currently streaming on Mubi for another 5 days. If you have the time, get a 7-day trial and experience the overwhelming beauty of this film. I’ve watched it twice already, and I can see a third and final watch on the cards for this weekend. I cannot wait to own this film on disc and watch it as my own form of quiet meditation on love, loss and identity.
If you need only one more thing to convince you to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire, let it be this. I sobbed uncontrollably during the closing shot. One of the most poignant and moving single takes I have seen. The final sequence alone moved me so much on both viewings, that I sat in silence long after the film ended, not wanting to leave the perfect creation these fine women have put together.