At its surface, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a deceptively simple historical drama. A painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of former convent girl Heloise (Adèle Haenel) before she is set to marry a Milanese nobleman. Heloise, however, rejects the marriage and refuses to pose, so Marianne must paint her in secret. Yet through Celin Sciamma’s masterful directing and screenplay, deservedly winning Best Screenplay at Cannes, it brings us along the meandering journey the two women take of discovery and empowerment.
From its first shot to its last, Portrait lives up to its namesake. Cinematographer Claire Mathon fills every frame with careful and intricate composition. The colours of the 18th century French island shine through the lens, while Mathon paints each shot with a lush palette. Mimicking the film’s slow pace, the camera is often still, commanding us to observe the spectacle silently. However, even with the almost overwhleming flourish coming from Mathon’s delicately composed shots, the shots never consume the film. While meticulously planned, the focus is never fully put on the beautiful colours, but always on the two main characters. Sciamma also has most of the sound in the film be diegetic, with no overpowering score underpinning the emotional impact, and it makes it all the more effective when she does introduce sound, especially in a magical scene with a chorus of live vocals and rhythmic clapping. The film momentarily dips into the surreal, and it’s completely mesmerising.
The way in which this masterpiece is filmed is central to a key idea behind it’s inception: a film about female empowerment and freedom. The lens does not leer at the blossomming romance or hover in an unnerving fashion over the pair in pasionate moments as is the case in so many blockbuster flicks. Sciamma is determined to create a sensitive and devestating piece whilst avoiding problematic tropes, and the result is of this endeavour is breathtaking.
With the film having such a limited cast, everyone is put in focus, and all of them manage to execute their roles perfectly. Throughout the runtime, the chemistry between the two leads bursts through the screen. While they speak slowly, each word is delivered poetically, begging to be retorted by the other and continuing a mental mind-game between the two. Sciamma presents them as they are, as honestly as she can, and their feelings towards each other don’t seem forced. The two characters are of course put in a dilemma – their time is limited, and Marianne is now completing a task that she knows will make what she dreads a reality- giving Heloise away. The careful camerawork and screenplay traverse the emotions the characters are feeling flawlessly.
Sciamma is heavily attuned to her characters, her themes, and her composition. She lures us in with gorgeous direction, and fittingly landmark performances from Merlant and Haenel. We are fully entranced with the film’s ideas of love, female taboo, and most importantly, the power of seeing. Bold and brilliant, it deserves the awards it has ammased already and it deserves to be seen by anyone.
Illustration: Paula Convery