Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review
There’s something to be said for films that have a straightforward story to tell, but do it so well every beat you see coming hits hard regardless. There’s little surprising about Portrait of a Lady on Fire as far its plot is concerned - most viewers will see the path it sets out on from early on - but the power that director Céline Sciamma wields behind the camera elevates a simple love story into something captivating and absolutely gripping.
The French director’s latest explores identity just as her previous films have, with Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014) both showcasing her deft hand at interrogating gender dynamics. This perspective is very much present in Portrait..., this time applied to a tale of forbidden romance between two women, while her ability to inspire striking and layered performances from her cast is back in full force too.
This story follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who arrives on a remote island in Brittany towards the end of the eighteenth century. There she meets Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the woman she is tasked with painting a portrait of in advance of her marriage to a man she hasn’t met. Héloïse has previously refused to pose for a painting, in part due to her unhappiness with her engagement, so instead Marianne poses as her walking companion to get close to subject while painting her in secret. These unusual circumstances creates an environment in which these two strangers can share their inner thoughts, grow to like and eventually love one another.
Those invested in queer cinema may bristle at the idea of yet another tale of an affair that must remain hidden and express itself only in private, given how often the genre depicts tragedy and doomed romances above all else, but Sciamma has little interest in retreading stale story beats. Instead, the film focusses on the things that make Héloïse and Marianne’s relationship unique, how they build a deep connection and begin to understand one another.
The steady pace of the narrative makes this a slow burn, with the few characters slowly developed into deep and distinct. This is made more prominent by the sparse score; with the silence highlighting the incredible sound design and elevating the occasional bursts of music to a greater impact. Sciamma’s direction has the same interesting contrast, with rich colours and measured camerawork ensuring the few locations feel three-dimensional and lived-in - with more than a little help from supporting actress Luàna Bajrami, who puts in a fantastic performance in an otherwise small and understated role.
From this simple set-up, which features only three named characters throughout its runtime, Sciamma digs deep into their needs and desires. Sophie (Bajrami) struggles with her own womanhood, finding support and love from the other two women despite their initially servant-mistress relationship.
Marianne and Héloïse only interact due to the roles handed to them, but gradually those barriers are eroded and their personalities emerge and they push back against the predestined paths they are expected to take as women. Beyond Marianne’s comments about what she is allowed to paint or Héloïse’s dread for her upcoming marriage, their eventual understanding of each other after penetrating this surface gets to the heart of the nature of romance and intimacy.
While there are high-minded ideas relating to the inner and outer lives led by these women, the reason it all works is the outstanding character detail provided by the script and the cast. Neither Merlant nor Haenel give showy performances, instead creating a grounded and organic relationship that lives and breathes. Haenel in particular gives a memorable and idiosyncratic performance, revealing more of Héloïse’s true self beneath the surface as the film progresses - making those early scenes worth revisiting.
The talent on display both in front and behind the camera makes this romance feel fresh and hit hard when it needs to. Many will intuitively know where it’s going - and Sciamma doesn’t go out of her way to hide it - but that doesn’t ultimately matter. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is beautifully understated in how it details the most intimate features of its characters' lives, slowly building to a heart-stopping crescendo that stays with you long after the credits have stopped rolling.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is released in the UK on 28th February 2020