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Review: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

A movie about the interior stillness of the gaze, as the camera allows characters to contemplate on screen before their words either die on their lips or escape to speak some truth about the speaker themselves. With a reflective juxtaposition between our two characters trapped within this love story that will not last, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of a Lady On Fire allows us to be trapped within these frozen moments of time, creating pockets of stillness to allow for intimate closeness to the movements on screen.

As Sciamma paints her characters with such a vivid brush, every movement feels momentous in its purpose. The lack of score allows us to hear the rhythms within the breaths of these two women who fall in love, creating intimacy and desire in the physical space between them, and when that space is closed off, there is an electricity that radiates from the screen. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a beautifully told, exquisitely photographed portrait of female desire, existing within a space between seconds where time no longer exists, while also being aware that though such time is limited, the emotions will last a lifetime, even if these women cannot spend their life with each other. 


Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on the coast of Brittany France in the 18th century, there to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has been elusive to the previous painters given the task prior to Marianne. One such portrait exists from a previous painter, with the head missing because Héloïse refused to show him her face. She does not approve of this arranged marriage that she has no voice in, so Marianne is to paint this portrait without Héloïse knowing. Her excuse is that she is there to accompany her on walks while covertly getting enough of an image of Héloïse to be able to paint her from both memory and these small sketches she took when Héloïse wasn’t paying attention. Gradually this relationship develops, where eventually Héloïse agrees to pose for Marianne, in the process igniting a passionate romance between the pair.

When Marianne and Héloïse share a kiss for the first time in the film, this pent up desire and lust finally release from their inner beings. We witness a closeup of their mouths connecting as the imperfections and perfections of their movements lock into place, and as their lips part, there are strings of saliva that still connect their lips together until it can no longer hold on. It is not only one of the most beautiful moments within a film filled with beauty, but it speaks to the way in which Céline Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon wanted to capture the quiet intimacy and spatial closeness of this story. It is a film about the reflective perspective of love as we interpret ourselves and our partner through our gaze upon them. Then as they close in on this kiss, the film becomes about the freedom that exists within this action, and the defiance of this act itself, as both women explore their own identity through their intimacy with the other. But more than anything, it is a moment filled with desire, as we watch two women reciprocate their feelings back to the other. 

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What Céline Sciamma does with Portrait is allow for these women to exist within a shared space together, and every line of dialogue has a purpose within the moment. As we focus in on their lips and the movement of their mouths within given moments, there are several lines of dialogue that die in their throats. And there is a spatial awareness to these women and their relationship with one another, and that space between them within a given scene is specific, to the point where, as we watch, it feels like we can count the distance between them in feet or inches. The distance is pronounced, which allows for a sense of catharsis when that distance is finally closed, and every touch feels even more electric than the stolen gazes. 

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a film worth falling in love with. It is ravishing, with beautiful photography and performances that create an intensity in their intimacy. It is a movie where two women fall in love, and that love cannot last beyond this moment due to the circumstance of the world around them, so they create these memories of one another to hold onto. It is patient in its pace, letting the camera sit in order to allow these characters to reveal themselves, with dialogue written on their faces that they do not speak. And when they do speak there is a playfulness to the language melded with this intensity in their body language. This is a film that loves to be still and contemplative, yet that patience never overextends its hand into becoming tedious and dull. Every shot is exquisite in its design as if they themselves were painted by hand.

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Review: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a film worth falling in love with. It is ravishing, with beautiful photography and performances that create an intensity in their intimacy.
Patient direction
Gorgeous painterly cinematography
Beautifully intimate performances