Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French coming-of-age romance drama that should have been nominated for Best International Feature Film and Best Picture along with Parasite. Boon Jong Ho said “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. It’s true, in spite of the decision to remake The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and if you need further evidence, look no further than Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A tender, delicate and sensual slow-burning romance drama from writer-director Céline Sciamma, it’s one of the most talked about Oscar snubs at this year’s Academy Awards. Featuring a relatively unknown cast in Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel and Luàna Bajrami, the period drama director and ensemble will undoubtedly lead to some Hollywood interest once the film industry manages to resurrect itself.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set on an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the 18th century, where a female painter is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman. Centred on a similar storytelling device to Final Portrait with Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer, this drama grapples with desire through secret and forbidden romance. Final Portrait was more stilted, grappling with Giacometti’s process as a gently entertaining character study. Portrait of a Lady on Fire unveils the concept of an artist and their muse, going much deeper in dealing with the pursuit of capturing someone’s essence.

The story is fairly simple, yet remains compelling in the detail, as two women befriend one another under false pretenses only to grow closer and more intimate with each passing day in an effort to prepare a worthy wedding portrait. Using dramatic tension by playing up the futility of a reluctant bride-to-be, the filmmaker swathes us in this windswept romance drama with cliffs overlooking oceans and romantic wardrobe harking back to hearths and easels.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

“Whaaat?? This is my resting face.”

Two outstanding and powerful co-lead performances compel this drama in a similar way to Call Me By Your Name. Merlant and Haenel embody elemental performances, allowing Sciamma to exact her vision with flair and confidence. Living in each scene, capturing the mischievous flame of love in their eyes and often finding a purity of craft they create rich and textured performances through their undying commitment and some priceless expressions. Much of this success can be attributed to pinpoint casting and trust in Sciamma’s ability and vision.

Her masterful storytelling and the film’s artful visuals keep you locked in as if mesmerised by an artwork and unable to move on. Churning at its own smouldering pace, steeped in nuance and all about stolen glances, it’s an intoxicatingly beautiful and restrained drama. Leveraging anticipation and stoking the embers of passion, Portrait of a Lady on Fire creates a tug-o-war between art and relationship through mood and modesty. This is a film almost entirely comprised of women, made with an uncommon sensitivity and subtlety. Perhaps this deliberate downplay and focus on minutia is why it didn’t receive as much fanfare as it deserved.

This is carried through by the unobtrusive cinematography, on-location shooting, swirling themes and deceptively low-key production design. Using nature to convey the forces at play, it’s a poetic dance between fire and water as the powerful soundtrack weaves music and nature to stir your soul. Cleverly supplanting wrap-around musical themes, it manages to slice through outmoded social norms to present a powerful and emotional drama that echoes in today’s world. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a hauntingly remarkable film, a first-class production and rarity that transcends the celluloid on many levels.

The bottom line: Mesmerising