A stunning achievement of filmmaking, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a story of affection, art, and self-worth.
You see the titular painting almost fifteen minutes before you see the subject. Art teacher Marianne (Noémie Merlant) chastises one of her pupils for taking it out without asking permission, and we watch as Marianne stares wistfully at the painting before jumping back a handful of years into one of the most heartfelt and touching and beautiful romances that I have seen in years. Truly I will be shocked if I see a better film at New York Film Festival. Or even this year, for that matter.
To experience Portrait of a Lady on Fire is to see the commitment of love and friendship in the lifetime of two women, kept apart not just by their sexuality but by expectations and societal standards. There are only two men with dialogue in the film because for once women are allowed to tell their own story. Set in the midst of French beach land in the late 1700s, Marianne is invited to the home of Héloïse (Adele Haenel, The Unknown Girl) and her mother (Valeria Golino). Héloïse is expected to marry, and her relationship with Marianne is tenuous from the outset. Marianne is hired by the mother to paint Héloïse’s portrait, without Héloïse knowing. Instead, a bond is developed that is almost electric, a full development of a family in a short period that explains who two women are at a time when they are expected to be seen and not heard.
Haenel and Merlant provide some of the best performances that 2019 has seen, and they carry the film on their backs. The complexities of Marianne and Héloïse and their attraction to one another is singular. Playing an artist is something that many have done with difficulty, but Merlant hits all the right notes, turning the act of painting into a religious experience. Similarly, Haenel (a personal favorite from Nocturama and BPM: Beats Per Minute) allows for Héloïse to be comfortably complex. We don’t need every answer for why she does what she does, and the film smartly doesn’t provide them. Instead, she is shown as strong, smart, and brave. Any woman going against society (as the four leads of this film all do) can be called the same. But Haenel wears it too damn well.
The romance is only one aspect of a far larger film, however. Marianne’s love of art in all forms is treated as poetic majesty, and the constant presence of chambermaid Sophie goes from a joke to a beautiful look at acceptance and family. Even the relationship between Héloïse and her mother feels like a commentary on recent changes between generations. Director and writer Céline Sciamma is, without question, a marvel. She takes the period of Napoleon and Les Miserables and more French culture and turns it into a completely different story. Women take not just the forefront, but the upper hand.
As abortion and status and the role of women in the household reveal themselves as larger themes in the film, Sciamma displays just how much she is taking on. But with cinematographer Claire Mathon’s clinically perfect visuals and the brutal silences of a score-less film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes on some of the most important and timely issues today in a perspective that might seem unwieldy. But Sciamma makes the most of her canvas, painting a landscape of France at a time of political upheaval and social reckoning. Sicamma creates art.
If this review seems rambling, it is because I have no way to articulate the perfection of the film. I could comment on the usage of Vivaldi at key moments, or on how Haenel has one of the greatest faces of an actress right now. Maybe I could talk about the queer relationship between the 1700s and 2019 and why we still don’t have stories like this every day. Or I could even go into intense detail about what is the best scene in any film this year, involving a festival and a chorus and a fire. I could even talk about reproduction and family and communication and deceit and cowardice and on and on.
But instead, I offer only a request. When you’re looking at the showtimes at your local theater this December, don’t flee from the 2-hour long lesbian drama. Don’t shirk away from some seemingly tragic story, as Portrait of a Lady on Fire could have been. Don’t consider that France didn’t submit it for Best International Film at the Oscars. Ignore if you have heard mixed things about the previous films Sciamma has made. You will be charmed and mystified, and you will be enchanted. Everyone deserves the chance to experience a film this beautiful one in their life. Try this one for yourself.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be distributed by Neon Pictures on December 6th