Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Céline Sciamma Ranked
2019 Ranked

There’s something haunting about Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s not so much a ghost story as it is about an inescapable feeling, a memory that won’t ever be able to leave you. Of course, that would be an excellent description of a ghost story but aside from a few twists of a troubled mind, you won’t find a lot of jump scares in Céline Sciamma’s first true masterpiece. And still, you might feel scared at a certain point if only because you get completely swept away by the emotional rollercoaster that Sciamma created, a ride so vivid and tangible that it all but has to stay with you for a very long time. And yet for a film filled with so many, deeply footed emotions, it starts off so quiet and tranquil; perhaps one could even call it deceiving how isolated this story feels at first, were it not that the very first scene already shows what it’s all about clear as day.

In this opening Sciamma immediately envelops us in the minimalistic style we are used of her - her films have always dawned on me as mood pieces more than they are finished stories though her latest work may come closer to the latter. In a classroom at the end of the 18th century, we find a handful of young girls at sketching one of the leads in our story, Marianne (Noémie Merlant). As the screen is filled with the bright white of their canvasses we see their hands reach into the frame to set out the first lines of their portraits with tiny bits of charcoal much like Sciamma is doing through them. It is then that Marianne notices a painting in the back of the room which one of her students brought there. As she chokes up in front of her classroom we are whisked away to “a long time ago” to witness her memories first hand.

As it turns out she’s commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a woman living on a remote island. Once the portrait is finished the woman will travel to Milan for her wedding. As easy as that may sound, Marianne has taken on quite a task. Her subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) may not know that she is being painted as she is strictly against the wedding plans of her mother. Thus Marianne pretends to accompany her on walks and has to paint her from memory. Yet the more Marianne studies her subject the more she falls in love with her. What starts as innocent conversations between the two soon blossoms into a strong friendship and eventually even more.

Yet as much as the two women grow towards each other, we learn very little about their backgrounds. We know Héloïse’s sister died in an unfortunate accident that has troubled her ever since; we know Marianne learned the craft of painting from her father; but the women are never given fully fleshed out stories to hinge on. No, the beauty here lies in the fact that we believe and empathize with these women and their situation exactly through the opposite. The dialogue is much sparser than one might expect (still very much worthy of that Screenplay award in Cannes though). There are great silences throughout the film in which we are forced to completely take up the picture as it becomes the only form of communication for the audience. But it’s all the better for it. Why waste words when a picture can tell a thousand of them? And in the hands of Sciamma, as strong of a cinematic voice as one can find nowadays, why wouldn’t you?

Sciamma turns gazing, longingly looking through a lens of love, not lust, into an art form of its own. The paintings within the film wither in comparison to the immensely strong visual language the French director utilizes. Each frame she presents could’ve been a painting of its own. And it’s not mere beauty that makes this romance so tangible, it is the unspoken bond of love that is felt in the tears of the actresses and the gasps when they can’t find or are unable to speak the words they want to share with one another. They are forced to live in silence but, for the small time they are given to be together, they make full use of it.

And so does Sciamma. With both visual and narrative poetry, she creates a romance so strong it actually stays with you like an undying memory. The hauntings in this film are the hauntings of love that have come to stay with Marianne. She has seen such great beauty only to let it go again. She felt love, sadness and perhaps regret but she’d probably do it all again if only for that memory of her…

It will take a storm to beat this powerful love letter of its throne. Sciamma has really outdone herself this time. Few films will leave you as speechless as this one.

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