Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★

The latest feature from Céline Sciamma uses the face as a canvas to display all the yearning, elation, agony, frustration, and passion of forbidden love. She relies on extended closeups, instead of dialogue or even a score, to show how a once in a lifetime romance impacts a couple so hard it remains seared into memory throughout a painful expanse of time. What a refreshing change of pace from the usual Hollyweird dreck where star crossed lovers profess sweet nothings in treacly monologues to the swell of strings. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, silent glances exchange across public space, a painter (Noémier Merlant) and her soon-to-be married subject (Sciamma’s real life ex-lover Adèle Haenel) choose words carefully to test passionate waters, and the subtleties of light and posture in a portrait can tap a deeper wellspring of feeling.

The distinct lack of score, and focus on body language, makes Portrait feel minimal, unpredictable, yet bold. Without the typical romantic drama tools, Sciamma runs the risk of alienating a less adventurous audience or losing important emotional details. However, she directs the film like a portraitist, showing how the slightest smile or hand placement or turn of the head can convey unspoken longing. How a page number in a novel or interpretation of a Greek myth can ignite the fire of love ‘til it burns bright and blinding.

Sciamma also uses a female cast (a man only speaks one line) to comment on a restrictive society where aristocratic dullards pay artists to depict their best threads and urns and drawing rooms and lux ephemera like the 18th century equivalent of a selfie. The titular lady on fire has no real choice but to marry a man she doesn’t want just to secure status and wealth and make her mother happy. And her mother is too oblivious to discern her daughter is sleeping with the hired help behind her back. Two women in love? In this patriarchal European Renaissance? Forget it!

Perhaps, if remaining a confirmed bachelorette didn’t doom a woman to a hard life of impoverished toil or if lesbianism wasn't forbidden to the point of unthinkability, both the painter and her subject in Portrait could find happiness. The movie comes to life in scenes where girls behave outrageously in private: playing cards, telling stories, singing, dancing. Only behind closed doors or through code can these lovers truly be free. Once the absent score finally seeps into the picture and builds to a crescendo, Sciamma achieves a moment of pure emotional flood other romance directors wish they could replicate. Truly a love story for the ages, Portrait of a Lady on Fire moves with the confidence of a masterful visual stylist breathing life and potent meaning into a timeworn genre.

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