Like the filmic equivalent to fine wine, improvement looms over every foreseeable viewing of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. I have partaken in its pleasure and now face torment by the thirst that follows; its unique flavour has plagued my mind since our first watch together and I find myself giddy to see it strengthen upon the next. Finally released on MUBI, allowing me to see for myself what has invoked such mountainous admiration, here plays a tender and delicate love story that practically weeps emotion and only the purest humility. Shot in a deliciously colourful 8K, the film is no less than an eighteenth century painting come to life.
A young artist, played by Noemie Merlant, is commissioned to covertly paint the wedding portrait of an uncooperative aristocrat, played by Adele Haenel – recently, and against her will, betrothed to a stranger. Acting as a hired companion in the wake of a familial loss, Merlant’s Marianne watches Haenel’s Heloise closely, memorising her face and absorbing her ora, all to be put to canvas without her knowledge; as Heloise, in an act of rebellion, outright refuses to pose. But as the days go by, and with every secret stroke of paint, a deeply emotional connection is formed between the two women, birthing a passionate romance of poetic proportions.
The film boasts brilliance on multiple fronts, the sound design brought forth shivers to my spine, and there was no shortage of quiet gasps for the aforementioned 8K cinematography; which presents the film with a very alien amalgamation of classic art and contemporary dreams of nostalgia for the era at hand. Nearly every scene lacks the accompaniment of a soundtrack, and what music can be heard is purely diegetic. This is a film of quietness; of footsteps, of waves crashing, fire cracking, breathing and whispers – as the voices of the cast are soft and light, producing very concise dialogue that wisps through one’s ears like a feather in the wind.
There is a trio of chemistry on display here, that of the two leads, speaking through the camera with their very souls interlocked as one – and the director who commands the translation. The reservation in the characters’ faces, teasing the audience with flickers of developmental reaction while we hunger for clues as to their next move, is conducted by a filmmaker who speaks cinema, seemingly, as a first language. While relishing in directorial personality, Sciamma harnesses her performers to electrify the audience, fully aware of what they will think and when they are going to think it. This is an art achieved by the cooperation of three very talented people, displaying chemistry as active as though the romance were real; how funny it is that Sciamma and Haenel used to be lovers.
I will say that, despite intelligence across the board, the rhythm of the film is not always as smooth as I would have liked. Not to say that the film is at all boring in parts, certainly not, but some larger and important beats in the plot feel held off for too long. And for a story so soothing in so many departments; it is a shame to see these beats hanging over the narrative, ready to strike, for longer than feels necessary and causing an occasional dent in the pacing. I suspect this issue is what will improve when I see it again, and I don’t hold it against the film too much, because Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a gorgeous work, rife with personality, tenderness, and dearly romantic warmth; Sciamma’s “female gaze” as that of utter charm.
Follow us on Social Media: