Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about Marianne, a painter, who is hired to paint a portrait of Heloise so it can be sent to an aristocrat in Milan to see if he will marry her. Though, over the course of getting to know each other, the two women fall in love even as they know their destinies are a foregone conclusion. It stars Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, and Valeria Golino. It is written and directed by Celine Sciamma.
There are moments in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that are utterly transcendent. They elevate the very art of filmmaking and can't be described by my plebeian words. Yet, I'll do my best to put into words the luscious filmmaking on display. As much as it is a film about a painting and the act of capturing essence on a canvas, the film is a living painting on its own. The beauty of the landscape, the Old World architecture, the dresses, and the women on screen is mesmerizing.
Celine Sciamma's direction shapes this story in ways we could never have seen before. Her eye for detail, for composition, and position within shots is enthralling and a constant, "how'd they do that?" moment. Sciamma with the talented and impeccable Claire Mathon as cinematographer have created a truly unique perspective. I can't stop thinking about a shot at which both women stand on a cliff looking out in profile, but we only see Heloise when Marianne turns her head. This move is done several times, revealing several different expressions on Heloise's face. It's so uncanny and so unique. No other team could have pulled it off and made it look as good as it does.
Yet, with stunning visuals also come the substance of Sciamma's script. We get the incredible love story, but Sciamma serves every character. Sophie, the housekeeper and cook, could have been one note, could have been seen and not heard like the dozens of other women in that role in period dramas, but Sophie's brought into the story. She becomes a friend of these women and they help her in her time of need. This is a period story in which women are united, confident, accepting, and warm to each other in friendship. It's so rare to see that on screen and to watch a character take shape in that environment. It's a brilliant move in an already brilliant script.
I can't go any further into a discussion of character without spending the next two paragraphs gushing about the two lead actresses. Neither of whom get billing over the other as it should be with two such lead performances.
Noemie Merlant as Marianne is exquisite. From the first time she lights up her pipe, sitting naked in front of the fire, she had me invested in who Marianne is as a person. Her face is so expressive we need so little from her in words. I love the way she opens her mouth slightly with surprise and that her eyebrows are boldly informing us of her mood. Her presence is steadfast and concrete like the old house itself. Much in contrast to Heloise.
Adele Haenel as Heloise is superb. She gives Heloise an unearthly, ethereal quality with her smiles that one has to earn and her grace in movement. Every eye flick makes us gasp and twitch of her mouth makes us yearn. Possibly the best wordless acting I have ever seen is in Heloise's last scene as she hears a music she's only ever been described. She goes through the full gamete of emotions and expressions as the weight of her experience is in her heart. I wept as she wept.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire never feels like its two hour plus runtime. It's a poem to our senses and a beautiful agony on our hearts. I'm going to see it again in a theater and I may even see it a third time. It's a film I will have chasing through my mind for the rest of my life and I hope you will take a chance on seeing it. I didn't even come close to describing the best and most beautiful parts so you have those to look forward to.