This piece of French cinema was written and directed by Céline Sciamma. Right out the gate I’m gonna say she has crafted an elegant, beautiful and deeply emotional film here, it just has to be addressed and the sooner the better I feel. Okay so let’s whip up a summary of the plot so I sink my teeth into the ripe piece of fruit that this film truly is.
Picture this, The setting is France along the coast, the year is 1770. A young woman called Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait. However, this isn’t a typical commission job, she’s to paint a portrait of Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel) without her knowing what she’s doing. Day by day Marianne accompanies Héloïse as they take walks along the beach, every second she can steal Marianne studies Héloïse’s features and paints her in secret.
Time passes and the two women grow closer to each other, they begin to discover the finer details about one another both reading each other like a book. They fall in love, a forbidden love. Héloïse is betrothed to a gentleman who resides in the city of Milan, she’s set to marry him once the portrait is completed. It’s a tragedy, it’s a romance, it’s love it may be brief but it’s the kind of love that has permanence, it’s raw and real.
Theres so many different things that make this a beautiful film, there’s just so many things!! The first thing I want to mention is the cinematography. Its outstanding, its breathtaking and above all else it’s natural, from beginning to end. All the colours, the sharp blue of the sea, the warm glow of the flames, the washed out muted tones of the large manor house, all of it is just so perfect. There’s a number of shots throughout the film that can be captured and framed, it’s art in motion to put it simply. The cinematographer Claire Mathon deserves all the recognition she’s received with this work.
The performances, The Performances! The two leads are magnetic, Noémie Merlant plays Marianne a headstrong, proud independent woman who’s a skilled artist while Adèle Haene plays Héloïse who’s been taken out of the convent and thrown into an arranged marriage, she’s a stoic, intelligent and a curious woman who resents the situation she’s fallen into and longs for independence. One of my favourite scenes is when the two characters first share the screen together they immediately bounce off each other with their initial exchange. Watching their relationship gradually evolve is an incredibly emotional experience as they fall deeper for one another knowing their end will come and their blossoming romance will never truly flower.
One aspect that caught my attention is the lack of a musical score, nowadays films are expected to have a musical score. They’re used to coax the audience into giving off certain emotional responses, be it terror at the scratchy piercing horror score or awe at the swelling grandiose pieces sewn into an action adventure film. ‘Portrait of a lady on fire’ has no score because it doesn’t need one, the audience doesn’t need to be coaxed into giving of emotional response the performances and writing are enough to make you invest in the relationship portrayed on screen.
The film may be missing a musical score but sound still has a very important presence within this film. Every stroke of a pencil, paintbrush or piece of charcoal is pronounced, each one methodical and with purpose. We the audience are meant to hear them and acknowledge that they have weight to them. I found myself hushing my breath at each motion of the artists instruments.
I’m going to wrap this up now, this is me wrapping it all up. ‘Portrait of a lady on fire’ is a gorgeous period piece romance film that presents a tragically beautiful narrative, powerful and layered performances, breathtaking stunning cinematography and striking sound design. This film will stay with you for some time after the credits roll (did you see what I did there? Self reference), it’ll have you daydreaming about falling in love in 18th century France and stealing your first kiss along a beach as the crips deep blue waves crash upon the shore…
It’s just… its just so beautiful I personally can’t get over it!!