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Movie Review: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a masterpiece

Movie Review: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a masterpiece

Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami

Synopsis: On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.

Céline Sciamma’s latest film is an absolute beauty to behold, and it’s not often that I proclaim a film a “masterpiece” but Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is the definition of “masterpiece” in every sense of the word. Sadly, the film wasn’t submitted by the French Minister of Culture as their entry for this year’s Oscars, ultimately the film Les Misérables was submitted. It’s a shame that Sciamma, and the film’s two leads (Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel) along with the film’s cinematographer Claire Mathon have been virtually ignored by the Academy. However, so many of cinema’s classic and most treasured films have gone unnoticed by the Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Science since the inception of the Oscars. So, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in good company.

The film is a tragic love story and we begin long after the romance has ended. We opens in a classroom where young women are painting their teacher Marianne (Merlant). She stares at her students and directly at us unblinking and unafraid. This is who she is and we must choose to accept her for who she is: fiercely, and unapologetically independent. One of her students notices one of Marianne’s paintings, and inquires about it. The painting’s name? ‘A Portrait of a Lady of Fire’.

We flashback to several years earlier, to see Marianne arriving at an isolated island in Brittany. Whilst in the rowing boat, her art supplies get knocked overboard, and without a single moment of hesitation she jumps in the water after them. We quickly find that Marianne has been commissioned by a countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter named Héloïse (Haenel) who is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits as she does not want to be married. In order to hide the reason for Marianne’s visit to the Island, Héloïse is informed that Marianne has been hired to be a walking companion.

Marianne must study Héloïse’s features and must paint the portrait in secret. Slowly the two women get closer, and Héloïse opens up to Marianne about the loss of her sister (Héloïse is now engaged to marry her sister’s suitor). A portrait is revealed, along with the truth about Marianne’s reason for being on the island. However, after Héloïse’s criticism of Marianne’s work, Marianne destroys her painting. Much to Marianne’s and the countess’ surprise, Héloïse states that she will sit for the portrait. And, when Héloïse’s mother leaves the Island, the two women grow closer.

The film’s central performances from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are wonderful and their chemistry is electrifying. Merlant’s Marianne is a woman who comes across as being in control of her emotions and her life, however Haenel’s Héloïse sends her into a tailspin of sorts. We get the impression that Marianne has fought to get where she is and as a result she likes to be in control. However Héloïse invades Marianne’s mind, both when she’s conscious and when she’s asleep. There’s a recurring image of a ‘ghost’ Héloïse who appears dressed in a white wedding dress, a haunting reminder that these two women can never truly be together. And, while this sounds depressing, Portrait is far from being a depressing affair. It is a film made up of humorous moments, tender heartfelt scenes and compelling insights into the lives of women in the Eighteenth century.

Sciamma has created a beautiful timeless love story where the individuals aren’t driven by lust but rather by compassion and empathy for each other. Indeed, Marianne and Héloïse are attracted to each other in a physical sense, but their relationship is far deeper than just a mutual sexual attraction towards each other. These are two people who love each other and respect one and other for their talent, intellect, humor and personality. There have been many films such as Blue is the Warmest Color, Disobedience, The Handmaiden that have focused on lesbian relationships, but these films have often been filmed through a male gaze and have been explicitly erotic in their sexual content. While there is sexual content in Sciamma’s film, it never feels exploitative and is clearly shot with a female gaze, with the female body and nudity is presented in a naturalistic manner that is rarely seen in cinema.

Claire Mathon’s stunning cinematography is achingly beautiful to gaze upon. Each frame is worthy of being hung in an art gallery, and each shot conveys so much meaning. This is a film rich with colour, deep blues, bold reds and luscious greens, Héloïse is defined by the color of blue to represent her mood, and Marrianne is defined by red. As the film and their relationship develops, we see Héloïse becoming associated with green, the color of rebirth. In fact, the film’s color palette reminded me of another tragic romantic film that came out this year called Beanpole (which coincidentally tells the story and bond between two women), which would make a wonderful companion piece.

Every aspect of this film is just so perfect, from the score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini, to the production design by Thomas Grézaud and costumes by Dorothée Guiraud.II could write several more paragraphs on how much I adore this film and why it’s so impressive on so many technical levels but this review is already a tad too long.I’ll end on a request, please do go seek out Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I promise you that you will not be disappointed.

Overall Grade: A

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