Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review: Raw power and true love boom from one of this year’s best films
Writer/director Celine Sciamma’s newest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a true labor of love that digs deep into the limitations put upon women and the true meaning of love, passion, and independence.
The film follows Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young female painter who travels to an isolated island in Brittany to paint a wedding portrait for a young woman at the turn of the eighteenth century. The young woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel), refuses to pose for a portrait because she has no desire to be married and is kept in isolation for the most part by her mother (Valeria Golino). Brought to attempt to paint Heloise from memory, Marianne begins to spend time with her and the two develop a strong connection. Their initial connection goes much deeper as they begin to develop new feelings that they’ve never felt before and must reconcile with the world they live in.
Right from the first shot of Marianne sailing to the island, you can tell that this film is going to be a visual masterpiece – and it really is. The vast landscape is incredibly luscious and as the two women walk along the shores, it’s like a breath of fresh air. There’s a true loneliness to the location that really makes Marianne and Heloise feel as if they are in their own world and it plays a significant part in both of the being able to explore their true desires for one another. The costume design from Dorothee Guiraud and cinematography from Claire Mathon compliment each other well through simple color palettes that are pleasing to the eye and a look that feels ripped right from that time period.
Good looks aren’t the only thing that the film has going for it, though, as the story from Sciamma is filled with powerful emotion that’s brought out through two excellent leading performances. On paper, Marianne and Heloise’s story seem simple, but the way that Sciamma slowly builds their connection and adds meaning to it is what makes it much more compelling and complex. Their story exists within a time where women aren’t given the opportunities to do great things and even Marianne is only able to make her own choices about marriage because she is taking over her father’s business. Due to their controlled fates, their isolation allows them, for the first time, to explore their surroundings and create their own experiences. It’s a legitimately empowering story of women finding themselves together that’s made to feel incredibly real through the incredible performances from Merlant and Haenel.
Together, these two instantly have your heart with the deep level of emotion they bring out through exploring their character’s thoughts and feelings towards life and one another. I actually loved how Sciamma treats their relationship with a sense of maturity rather than focus on the more sexual aspects. It allows for viewers to dig deeper into them, both individually and together, and makes them talking about their aspirations and feelings more meaningful. Seemingly small parts, like them talking about things they do that make know how each other is feeling and Marianne showing Heloise what an orchestra sounds like, actually leave a big impact and the film does a great job exploring their strengths in a world that doesn’t want to know them. Even outside of the romantic aspects of their relationship, their aspirations to test their strength’s and explore their personal feelings about their lives is very touching and seeing it done through women helping one another makes it all the more powerful.
There’s also a storyline of a young maid named Sophie (Luana Bajrami) becoming pregnant that’s intertwined into Marianne and Haenel’s story that reflects women coming together to help each other. It’s a strong side-plot that perfectly fits into the film and makes the entire film truly empowering and inspirational. One of my favorite scenes actually comes at the turning point of the film when a group of women come together to sing around a campfire. It not only sounds incredible, but booms with a power that’s raw, emotional, and full of awe. It’s this level of maturity and care that makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire a passionate labor of love that evokes the kind of empowering and thought-provoking narrative that carries real meaning that holds its weight until the very end.
I’ve always felt that a great ending that brings out real emotion and meaning is one of the hardest things to accomplish, but Sciamma makes it look simple here. The ending is perfect as it shares the same sense of realism that’s seen throughout the film and reflects the film’s ideas about what true love really is. Like I said before, the world they live in doesn’t accept or even want to acknowledge their desires, but there’s a way that their love for another exists on and it’s actually very touching to see. It both reflects a story that Marianne tells earlier in the film and gives their relationship true emotional meaning that’s displayed excellently through the film’s final scene.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is easily one of 2019’s best films as Sciamma creates an empowering narrative that I think most films would be too afraid to tell. The performances are masterful, the film is a visually stunning, and the story carries real depth that’s rarely touched. It’s everything you could want in a great film and it’s so incredibly timely for the female driven story it tells.