Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
“I’m saying that there’ll be good things too.”
“You’re saying that every now and then I’ll be consoled.”
Celine Sciamma has reconvened with the medium of cinema to offer another femme masterpiece, her Queer Palm winner and Palme d’Or nominated Portrait of a Lady on Fire living up to its billing as one of the ten most exciting movies coming out of Cannes in 2019, shattering expectations with some of the most extraordinary filmmaking this century.
Much like its titular painting, Portrait of a Lady on Fire instantly draws the eye both physically and analytically, its filmmaker literally telling you through the device of lead character Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to look at it, to read it, asking you to analyse the importance of every action from the first scene, its incomparably beautiful cinematography bursting with colour as every frame is presented as if a painting in of itself, the entire picture coming to formulate two year-defining moments: one of the greatest love stories of the decade, and; the witnessing of a filmmaker so confident in her own abilities that she has become simply incomparable in the work she is offering.
Haunted by a sumptuous melancholia, but one that never detracts from the life of the piece, Sciamma’s story of two women falling in love in 18th century France against the backdrop of religion, gendered expectations, mental health intolerance and sexual taboo, beautifully comes together as an emotional force through lead actor Noémie Merlant and her main support Adèle Haenel, who plays her on-screen lover and the centre of the film’s narrative exploration, Héloïse. Together, the actors pin every minor detail that Sciamma has demanded both on the page and within each scene, the minutae of their performances coming under intense scrutiny as Sciamma puts them under the microscope with detailed demands, the couple delivering impeccable, affecting performances that grow to gift the piece a truly tangible, intimate desire.
The characters fall for one another in quite extraordinary circumstances – their relationship is born out of an other-worldly journey into isolation and reinforcement inside a stately home on a rural island in France – but their romance is pinned against a wall of tragedy that leans over the growing relationship. Sciamma effortlessly links visual and audio cues to each related narrative development, paying them off with subtle or moving moments that come to offer satisfaction even within the melancholic and at times haunting experience. The ocean, for example, is presented as a beautiful but loud and imposing ever-present that acts not only as a constant reminder of grief, but of the wall between the characters and the so-called “real world”. Their budding romance and the intimacy they share is always underpinned by a distinct sense that the moments presented still feel painful to the narrator, the haunting melancholia in of itself therefore being inherently female, the lead character’s view of the world beautifully represented by a narrative that incorporates a wide range of women’s issues in the 18th century and beyond. This is a period piece, but it acts as an illustration of the ongoing struggles of women against a backdrop of inherent sexism in all walks of life; and thus it transcends the status of great film and moves instead into the realm of timeless art.
This experiential film from a woman providing a loud, remarkable and unmissable voice to women across the industry and beyond, is truly one of the greatest put to screen so far this century. From the very first frame in which the director entices the eye, Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels special, and it only grows in how extraordinary it is from there. This is more than a simple statement, it is a modern masterpiece of cinema. Timelsss and incomparable, it has to be seen to be believed.