Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★½


An impressive slow burn. Love stories predicated on a genuine connection rather than fueled by instant infatuation (and then tempered by artificial roadblocks) are vanishingly rare; Sciamma takes her time building the romance, step by tentative step, so that it means something when Marianne and Héloïse's passion finally ignites. At one point, their pillow talk turns to memories of when each first wanted to kiss the other, and I found myself involuntarily recalling the film's most formally charged moments (which aren't what the two women remember, and that's as it should be—they're meant for us). A striking shot of both in profile, with Marianne's face in the foreground and entirely blocking Héloïse's...except when Marianne occasionally turns to glance at Héloïse, and sometimes, but not always, finds her staring intently back. More powerful still, and a superb example of what cinema can uniquely accomplish: the sharp cut from Héloïse ducking her head beneath the ocean waves to Marianne watching from the beach as Héloïse walks past, returning from her "swim," visible only as a disembodied torso for a moment. Haenel and Merlant (where did the latter come from?!) pack plenty of tremulous emotion into brief looks and tiny gestures, but it's mostly the filmmaking itself that conveys what matters.

Sciamma doesn't quite trust herself, however. For one thing, she employs an unnecessary framing device, with a prologue that comes off kinda corny ("Who brought that painting out for no particular reason? Let us now flash back to the events that inspired its creation...")* and an epilogue that features one bittersweet reminder too many (final shot's fantastic, but I found the whole "page 28" thing overly contrived—so much so, in fact, that I was immediately suspicious when the page number got mentioned in the first place). And while I applaud the near-complete absence of men throughout, which is impossible not to clock yet still implicit, the abortion "subplot" is so disconnected from the narrative proper (despite Sciamma's effort to provide a little integration by having Marianne retroactively paint the procedure) that it comes across as distractingly pointed. Had Marianne or Héloïse somehow become pregnant, I think this bold, manifesto-adjacent strategem might well have worked; assigned instead to a minor third character, it's too blatant a Statement for my taste, and risks reducing the central relationship to a Statement by association. Not that I'm categorically averse to Statements, by any means—Knives Out is my favorite film of the year in part due to its rather blunt political message. But Rian worked hard to incorporate said message into the fabric of the world he creates. Here, it sticks out.

* Though I do give Sciamma some credit for never showing the painting again, even in the epilogue. That was a good instinct.