C’est juste une fille et elle est en feu. For those who don’t know how to read French or don’t trust Google Translate, that sentence means, “She’s just a girl and she’s on fire”. Which is taken from Alicia Keys’ song, “Girl on Fire”. Besides being my review on letterboxd (a shameless plug, follow me at _jessilaw), it also best describes why Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the best of 2019.
Directed and written by Céline Sciamma, the film is set in France in 1760. A young woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse has just left the convent and is a reluctant bride-to-be. She must not know that Marianne is there to paint her portrait, so Marianne works under the guise of companionship, observing Héloïse by day and secretly painting her at night by memory. As the two women spend more time together, intimacy and attraction grow as they share Héloïse’s first moments of freedom. Soon Héloïse’s portrait becomes more than a wedding portrait, but a collaboration of their love. Along the way they form a strong friendship bond with the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami).
The film is perhaps one of the most stunning films I’ve watched in 2019, so much so that I had to rewatch it. Every single shot is purposeful and hauntingly beautiful as it sets up the world for the two leads, where they share their most intimate moments together while on this isolated island. Each scene is crafted as if each frame was hand painted with every single detail being cared for. Thought was placed into smooth textures, layered compositions, and romantic touches of chiaroscuro lighting with Céline Sciamma being the lead painter. The result is a dreamy poetic romance.
The forbidden romance is thrilling and sexy as the director crafts an intimate romance that deliberately chooses what intimate scenes to show the audience. The most we see of their romance is the lingering stares, the soft touches, and the suggestive longing that’s respectful of their private moments. When they do have sex, all is shown is the aftermath, which keeps their sexual exploration secretative, like their affair to the world. The sexual relationship and intimate moments between the two are not catered to a male gaze. The thrilling and erotic nature of the relationship comes from the intimate little moments. Added into the intimate moments is the friendship between the two women and Sophie, who they help with an abortion. It doesn’t change the tone of the film as it sticks with the bond between women, in the confines of a remote area without patriarchal influence.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunning film that will stand the test of time and is one of the most beautifully crafted romances. The story builds up slowly with Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship and ends in with a climactic ending shot that sums up the emotional impact of the film. It’s a mesmerizing masterpiece, and let’s all say thank you Céline Sciamma.