Mitchell Beaupre’s review published on Letterboxd:
Exquisite isn't a word that often comes to mind for me when trying to describe a film, but I don't think there's anything that better suits Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in a luxurious seaside estate in France in the late 18th century, Sciamma's film (which she also wrote) details the burgeoning relationship between an aristocratic young woman named Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel, Sciamma's real-life romantic partner) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who has been commisioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse for her soon-to-be husband, whom she has never met. Initially presented under the guise of a walking companion, Marianne isn't supposed to let Héloïse know what she's really here to do, painting her portrait in secret, having to study Héloïse's every feature when they're together so that she can paint from memory.
Memory becomes a significant part of Sciamma's film, as the idea of how our memory can differ from the present, in ways both positive and negative, slowly creeps its way into this story of two women discovering one another. One evening, the two and a maid named Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) are up late at night, reading the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which leads to a very metaphorical debate about the true reason why Orpheus turned around to look at Eurydice, damning her to a second death, and the consequence that they will only live on in each other's memory. This story takes great hold over what comes for the rest of the film, as Sciamma includes a powerful, slightly supernatural element into the film that holds great weight for Marianne's perspective, and for the lasting impact of the bond that her and Héloïse will eventually share.
At first, both women are quite reserved, and could perhaps even be considered a bit severe. We eventually learn their different reasons for being so shut off from the world, unsurprisingly coming from the marginalization of women in this society, and the repression that each of them face in their different circumstances. The movie, like their relationship, starts off as a bit of a slow burn, but it really sneaks up on you with the weight of their growing fondness for one another, and by the time I realized that I had started to really develop an investment in each of these women, the movie had already completely taken me into its hold. Sciamma's film got under my skin in a way that few others have been able to in recent years, in a way that felt like it really took its time to earn the time and energy that I put into experiencing it. It's a tremendous formal exercise, a genuine masterclass in framing, with every shot by cinematographer Claire Mathon being one worthy of dissection to reflect on its great meaning.
I could spend an entire day talking about so many individual shots from the movie, from the heartaching ending, to the aforementioned late night scene between the three ladies, to the image memorably used for the film's poster. One that I want to specifically single out though, and the most lasting image from the film for me, is one of the two women in bed together, with Héloïse laying nude, her chest covered by a bedsheet, while a mirror is resting between her legs. Using the mirror, Marianne sketches a portrait of herself, a way of returning the favor that Marianne will always have an image of Héloïse to remember her by. It's a beautiful image aesthetically, but unpacking the many different layers contained within it adds more and more beauty and meaning to it the further you think about it. The way that we remember each other, the ways that our memory can fade and an image that we hold can become the way that we see another person, the way that we see ourselves, and how we see how our lovers see us. There's so much going on in this one image, and it's a reflecton (ahhh, mirrors) for how much is going on throughout this entire movie.
Above everything else though, the lasting impact of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in the relationship between these two women, and the movie wouldn't have half the impact that it does if it wasn't for the chemistry between Merlant and Haenel. Romantic chemistry on screen can be a tricky, exceptionally rare thing to pull off, at least in my experience of watching films, and there has rarely been an example of it being accomplished as astronomically effectively as Merlant and Haenel do here. The slow burn with how they develop their feelings for one another, and how they express them, how they find release and comfort in one another that they have never, and will never, get in the world outside of their relationship.
It's a movie loaded with so much aching, so much longing and pain, but at all times there's a bittersweetness to it because they at least have been able to experience this for however long it lasts. You know that that this can't end well, there isn't a conventional happy ever after for this couple from the second they meet, and yet the fact that they get to experience this pain at all, it means that they experienced something truly worth living for. The pain only comes from the weight of the love. In a lot of ways, that sentiment, and the final stages of the film, reminded me of the feelings that I got when watching Call Me By Your Name, and that's of course a huge compliment coming from me.
One final thing that I want to mention about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a small scene, another one loaded with meaning for all of the characters and for the film at large. Without getting into spoilers, there's a subplot in the film where the two leads help Sophie out of a jam. It's a great bonding experience for all of them, a true testament to the power of women helping each other out in a world that's been stacked against them, and when it's all done Marianne wants to construct a painting to memorialize the event. It's a great moment for Marianne, where she uses her art to confront the harsh reality of the world, and of the way that the world treats women unjustly, something which we've been made aware previously is a huge part of why she pursues this creative field. Yet at the same time, there's a profound subtext in this moment about the way that Marianne and Héloïse treat Sophie. For everything we've seen elsewhere in the film, the two see Sophie as their relative equal, as a friend, as someone worthy of respect and who exists in the same area as the two of them. Yet, in this moment, after Sophie has experienced something so trying and life-changing, Marianne and Héloïse both treat her as an object, someone who is there to do their bidding and exist as part of their experience, rather than as part of her own.
This isn't a scene that condemns the two main characters, or forces us to change our perception of them in any way. But without calling any attention to it, this moment is Sciamma addressing the reality that this story is focusing on two upper class women, and acknowledging the privilege of their standing, even in a story where a lot of the focus is on their repression. I think it's a very bold move to make, and without drawing any attention to the fact that she's doing it, Sciamma presents it within the reality of the world that she's depicting in a way that makes it so much sharper and more resonant. The fact that she even took the time to consider addressing the class inequality, and the privilege that her two main characters possess, is the kind of thing that puts my level of respect for Sciamma to a new height, and my appreciation of Portrait of a Lady on Fire to the point of being one of the very best films of the year.