"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma
Starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel and Valeria Golino

‘A Gorgeous Period Piece’

Lesbian love stories are rarely depicted in films. Hollywood has long held a tradition of ignoring the stories of queer women. It is not easy to create a realistic lesbian romance that appeals towards mainstream audiences. It’s a formidable task that requires filmmakers to confront controversial subject matter. When telling the stories of queer women, filmmakers often fall prey to the male gaze. Through this flawed perspective, women are merely seen as sexual objects for male pleasure rather than multi-dimensional people. For these reasons, it is rare to come across authentic lesbian love stories in films.

In this regard, Céline Sciamma’s latest french film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is like a breath of fresh air. Intense, mesmerizing and sensual, it offers a gorgeous portrait of a lesbian romance. With her fourth feature, writer/director Céline Sciamma uses the female gaze to craft an exquisite film about queer women. Packed with captivating cinematography, breathtaking production values and powerful performances, it is an incredibly effective lesbian drama. Although “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is undeniably unforgettable, it is not a film without flaws. It moves at a slow pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it offers spellbinding entertainment that will satisfy fans of French Cinema.

Set on an isolated island in 18th Century France, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” tells the story of an ill-fated romance between two women. Noémie Merlant stars in the lead role as Marianne, an artist that paints portraits of aristocratic figures. However, her life forever changes when she is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse is a reluctant bride to be that refuses to pose for portraits. As the two women begin a forbidden affair, the strict norms of society threaten to tear their relationship apart.

Writer/director Céline Sciamma is well-versed in themes of lesbian romance. Ever since she gained worldwide recognition with “Water Lilies” in 2007, Sciamma has proven to be a fantastic French filmmaker. Her films are often characterized by stylized mise-en-scène, minimal dialogue and timely themes. With “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, however, Sciamma has crafted her first period piece. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to capture the lives of queer women in the 18th Century, but she pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, she draws viewers into the world of a passionate portrait painter. From intimate close-ups to breathtaking establishing shots, the cinematography transports viewers into the film’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer Claire Mathon, Sciamma creates a sumptuous film in which each frame is like a beautiful painting brought to life. Sciamma excels at immersing viewers in the world of a portrait painter, and her latest feature is worth watching on the big-screen for this reason alone.

If lesbian love stories do not attract you to the theater, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most astonishing production values that you’ll ever see in a period piece. The sets, costumes and musical cues are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive movie-going experience. Sciamma proves to be an expert at designing the costumes for her films. For instance, the dresses worn by women play a crucial role in the movie. Whether it is Héloïse’s gorgeous green garment or Marianne’s red dress, the eye-catching costumes immerse viewers into the film’s setting. Moreover, the musical choices are also worth praising. Sciamma’s decision to use no musical score is risky, but it works tremendously. The absence of music gives the film a dark and mysterious atmosphere. Through phenomenal production values, Sciamma keeps viewers invested in the illicit affair between two women.

Another laudable aspect of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the screenplay. Sciamma’s screenplay is superb, and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with fascinating characters, meaningful dialogue and timely themes, the script elevates the movie to another level. Sciamma’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is her ability to use minimal dialogue to covey the emotions of characters. In Hollywood, most movies are driven by dialogue and rely on conversations to keep viewers entertained. Without dialogue, movies often risk becoming boring. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”. Sciamma uses moments of silence to convey the unspoken desires and attraction between the main characters. Minimal dialogue is a risky technique to employ in a period piece, but it works immensely in this movie. Using an engaging screenplay, Sciamma keeps viewers engrossed in the central lesbian romance.

It is hard to not admire the amazing performances from the cast. Every star gets the chance to shine, but the film is mainly a showcase for its two leads.

Noémie Merlant delivers a sensational performance as Marianne. In her first ever leading role, Merlant proves to be an expressive actress with a knack for playing passionate portrait painters. It is not easy to portray a queer artist in the eighteenth century. It’s a challenging role that requires the actress to express emotions with minimal dialogue. However, Merlant pulls it off effortlessly. With alluring expressions, she conveys the passion, desires and affectionate feelings of a portrait painter that falls in love with her subject. While Merlant isn’t well-known outside of France, this star-making performance will surely gain her the recognition she deserves.

Adèle Haenel is astonishing in the role of a reclusive woman that refuses to pose for portraits. While Merlant gets the showier role, Haenel is also spectacular and worthy of awards recognition. With enigmatic expressions, she brings an aura of mystery and ambiguity to the movie as Héloïse. Whether she is flirting with Marianne or striking a confident pose, Haenel is convincing in every aspect of the role. It’s a powerful performance from one of the finest actresses working in France today.

Although “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is undeniably an unforgettable love story, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from a slow pace. Assisted by Claire Mathon’s captivating cinematography, Céline Sciamma keeps the film moving at an engaging pace during the first hour. However, once the film enters its finale, it starts to lose momentum and test the viewer’s patience. Moreover, the film’s controversial themes may not please everyone. The film explores sensitive topics such as feminism, lesbian romance and sexual identity that may upset viewers. Due to its bold themes, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of those movies that may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of Céline Sciamma’s previous films will definitely enjoy “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and so will movie-goers seeking entrancing entertainment. An astonishing work of art, it proves that lesbian love stories are worthy of recognition. At a time when lesbians are rarely represented in Hollywood, it’s a rousing reminder that the stories of queer women are worth depicting on the big-screen.

4.5/5 stars

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