Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★

Céline Sciamma’s historical romantic drama follows the relationship that develops when painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of reluctant bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), with the process affecting both of them.

The rich visual style makes each frame look like a painting come to life, with Sciamma finding a simmering passion lingering just below the apparently ordered surface, refusing to be stifled by conformity. This understated approach allows the relationship to carry even more weight, becoming expressed through the compelling bond that forms between these two kindred spirits, inspiring one another outside of the repression and convention that dictates their everyday lives.

The film explores just how hard it is to capture someone on canvas – their image becomes a ghost, memories conjuring up a wistfully nostalgic world existing half in reality and half in dreams. This gives the story an ethereal quality that slowly drew me in, although the middle is a bit weaker and more meandering than the rest, with the pregnancy subplot in particular making it feel a little too drawn out at times.

The last act makes up for this, though, rounding everything off and leading into one of the most quietly heartbreaking final shots for a film, getting across a whole galaxy of emotions in just a few moments. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is sometimes a bit too distant to fully connect to, but Sciamma fills it with an understated sense of longing and wistfulness that’s incredibly potent.

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