Céline Sciamma crafts a simple, emotional, and ultimately beautiful period piece depicting the powerful bond of forbidden love.
In a decade dominated by superheroes and complicated interwoven universes, the simple love story took a backseat. Explosions filled the big screens across the world, and though the special effects continue to amaze, traditional cinematography becomes a forgotten art. The French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire aims to please both the eye and the heart, using a beautiful backdrop and a simple premise to make a more-than-fitting tale of love in the late 1700s.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma creates a world that allows audiences to know these characters. Her script follows a female painter who travels to a remote island with the goal of painting another young woman as a pre-wedding gift to her arranged husband. The two women spend about a week together, walking the cliffs and beaches of the island, talking about the intricacies of life.
The painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and the painter’s subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), give personal and tender performances, making their forbidden love all the more enjoyable to watch unfold. Their relationship forms into one full of trust and specificity, though one that must end in the breaking of two hearts. Your gut tells you that these two won’t be together, but your heart can’t resist pulling for them, leading to a kiss that fills you with the butterflies that signify something magical is happening.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon deserves to be mentioned. While Portrait of a Lady on Fire, you feel like the characters are talking directly to you. Mathon does not use the classic over-the-shoulder conversation shots, nor are there many moments with several characters in frame. Even when the two leading women appear together, they often block one another, only made visible when one turns to another, a symbol of togetherness and increasing wholeness as the film progresses. “Stunning” would be the only way to describe Mathon’s camerawork unless you wanted to use the word “beautiful” along with each of its synonyms.
Instead, each woman fills in the center of the screen, because they’re the most important person at that moment. You don’t have the opportunity to even look at anyone or anything else. In every moment, they are everything to one another and to every audience member in the crowd.
Mathon’s cinematography combined with Sciemma’s careful direction forms a fascinating portrait of a lesbian love affair, with performances elevating this gorgeous portrait into a piece of art with necessity and significance. Together, the cast and crew make a film that sprawls in its intimacy, keeping its cards close and not revealing too much about either of the characters’ idiosyncrasies until they are told by one another.
By the end of the film, you feel the weight of the writing, direction, and performances, culminating in a story that sticks into your mind. Like the relationship it portrays, it takes a bit to move, initially existing with caution and a worthy amount of trepidation. Slow and steady definitely wins the race in this case.
Even with all of these complementary aspects, the film could have given us what we wanted, but Sciamma opts for a more empathetic, relatable approach. She provides audiences with honesty, love, and a form of pain-invoked truth often looked over in filmmaking. Everyone involved, these characters we’ve come to know in two short hours and those consumed by this relationship, experiences the bittersweet (more bitter than sweet) tinge of moving forward in life.
Marianne and Héloïse deserve this movie. The filmmaking and the performances match each other, with all involved working to create a piece that lasts, rather than flashes.
For those interested in foreign film, in LGBTQ representation, in love, or just in the importance of film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire should vault to the top of your list, making it one of 2019’s best and brightest films.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.