Part of what makes film so compelling as an art form is the variety of media that it is capable of combining. Behind every film is a dedicated group of people who specialize in their specific portion of filmmaking. Those efforts are then combined to make a cohesive piece of art.
With all films, these portions are executed to a variety of success. Sometimes the sound editing or score is great, but the script is lacking. Sometimes the story is strong, but maybe the performances are lacking. Sometimes, however, you get a film like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Something so close to cinematic perfection, it embeds itself deeply in your head and refuses to leave.
Since walking out of the theater, I have been unable to shake thoughts about this film. From its beautiful story to its gripping depiction of the throes of passion to its gorgeous visuals, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is impeccable.
The film tells the story of a painter named Marianne (Noemie Merlant) who is hired to paint a portrait of another woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel), who is about to be married off.
When she arrives, it is under the false pretenses that she is there solely to accompany Heloise on her walks, as her sister, who was meant to be married to the same man, has recently fallen over the cliffs of the island and died. When The Countess (Valeria Golina) leaves the house to the two women and Sophie (Luana Bajrami), the housemaid, for a few days, Marianne and Heloise find themselves falling into a deeply passionate romance with one another.
The plot of the movie is fairly straightforward and simple, but the little detours it takes while unraveling the relationship at its core and the little details that are buried in the script elevate it to something more. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” could have been a rudimentary story about a secret affair between two women but it’s just so much more than that.
I don’t even know where to start praising this movie. Visually, it’s stunning. The scenery is beautiful and ornate in just the right ways to accentuate what’s happening to the characters on screen.
The brilliant cinematography by Claire Mathon — yay, lady cinematographers — even further captures the beauty of the landscape and of the relationship that unfolds between the two protagonists.
Merlant and Haenel are nothing short of brilliant. Their chemistry and the way they bring these characters to life is so tender and passionate and careful that I often forgot I was watching a movie. The way the relationship was written obviously plays a big part in what makes it all so moving, but without these two, it could have not been what it was.
Merlant portrays Marianne with a curiosity and sympathy that is encapsulating. Haenel, on the other hand, creates a mysterious and reserved figure in Heloise. The intrigue and hesitance they show for one another just further draws the audience in and believe in them.
The story unfolds slowly but with explosions of fervor and passion. There’s something very heartbreaking about even the heights of romance in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” though. In your heart, you know how this story will play out and you know that it can’t have a happy ending. That looming dread makes everything happening on screen feel so immediate and important.
One more thing to note is that there is almost no score in the film. Instead, there are select moments where music is prominent, specifically “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The song is heavily featured in a thematic way, building to an emotional head at the end of the film that broke my heart.
There’s also thematic references to the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice throughout the film that tie the strong themes of love, loss and sacrifice together in the film. There is so much unsaid in this movie that it just begs to be rewatched and reanalyzed, and I can’t wait to experience it again.