Review: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Review: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Photo Credits: JOELLE TAHTA / AGGIE

A heart-shattering, unforgettable romance

You will think about the last 15 minutes of Céline Sciamma’s 2019 romance, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” for the rest of your life.

The film follows the relationship of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adѐle Haenel), two women on an isolated island in mid-1800s France. Héloïse, a young woman who recently left the convent, is to be married off by her mother to a Milanese man she has never met. Marianne, a single painter, is hired by Héloïse’s mother to paint a wedding portrait to be sent to the suitor. Héloïse is reluctant to marry and unwilling to sit for the painting. Marianne must paint her at night, with her only reference being the glances she steals during their daily walks. 

At its core, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” embodies the female gaze, a rare perspective — the glances so calculated, the looks so meaningful. Héloïse and Marianne form an unrelenting bond that can only stem from the thrill of being truly seen by someone. From this gaze, we see the strength and tenderness of femininity. Merlant and Haenel’s masterful performances show something we don’t see in straight movies: a complete power balance. Neither woman is a passive muse; rather they come together to make true art.

It is stylistically genius. With no score, the majority of the movie is silence interrupted by dialogue, but Sciamma wields music like a weapon, unleashing it to create the most powerful moments in the film. Heightened by the very lesbian setting of an isolated French island, the cinematography accentuates their freedom and their isolation through a beautiful color palette. This is a movie about visual art, and Sciamma doesn’t let you forget that. Each painting shown is so beautiful and thought-provoking that I’m considering signing up for ART 007.

Although the film is known for its emotional depth, it still manages to be funny. Héloïse and Marianne are not alone on the island but are joined by their young maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). The addition of Sophie shows a lovely friendship between the three women and, more subtly, the capacity that women have to care for each other under the radar of society. This dynamic spawns some of the funniest moments of the film. The smiles are so carefully placed that you feel them radiate onto you. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a movie about the pain of memory, manages to overwhelm you with happiness and fun.

With the exception of a jarring cameo near the end, the “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” cinematic universe (POALOFCU) is absent of men. In this liberty, the women have the space to fall in love and simply exist, letting us see what freedom could look like for women in the 1800s. About halfway through the movie, there is a scene where Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie sit down for a meal and it is through their admiring glances and subtle smiles that Sciamma gives us a fleeting look at the domestic life of the three women together and what could be without the suffocating conventions of the patriarchy. 

Sciamma uses her own perspective as a lesbian to personify the yearning that is so specific to the lesbian experience. She does this subtly, through the glances and gentle touches that fuel the movie. With this lens, and the fact that the cast and crew is almost exclusively comprised of women, the female gaze is unbroken. Despite being a period piece, it resonates with the realities of women face today and reminds us of how little has changed.

The final scene is so shattering that it is physically damaging. I watched, surrounded by the gasps and tears of those around me. Every muscle in my body tensed, and I felt myself clench my chest. I was so overwhelmed that my mind went blank — I felt buzzed with excitement and awash with pain. I think I might have been in shock. I left the theatre dizzy and gasping for air, so completely overwhelmed I could do nothing but try to steady my breathing. It haunted me for days and kept me up at night. It embodies the searing pain of memory.

Since its premiere at Cannes, where it won Best Screenplay and became the first female-directed movie to win the Queer Palm D’or, it has garnered a fantastic reputation. It would be rare to read a Best Films of 2019 list without “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” near the top. It has even earned itself a spot on many Best Films of the Decade lists.

Additionally, it has amassed a powerful cult following online and received one of the highest reviews for a romance on the social movie reviewing site Letterboxd

Everyone should see this film and be prepared to leave the theater a changed person. The number 28 will leave you sick to your stomach, and the words “turn around” will bring tears to your eyes.

Written by: Livvy Mullen — arts@theaggie.org