2020 Film Review: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
Updated: Jan 26
Plot Synopsis: France, 1770. Marianne, a painter, is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left the convent. Héloïse is a reluctant bride to be and Marianne must paint her without her knowing. She observes her by day, to paint her secretly.
Coming out in February here in the U.K., I'm a little late to getting round to catching up on this one. In many ways, missing out on a film and seeing the subsequent praise and buzz it receives in the meantime can lead to a lot of disappointments. Expectations are set and in this case, the bar was set very high. I couldn't be happier to say that it well and truly delivered in every way.
Set in the late 18th Century, the film follows a hired painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is tasked with creating a portrait of a less than interested woman for an intended arranged marriage. This immediately sets up an interesting dynamic between Marianne and Heloise (Adele Haenel), both sceptical of one another whilst exploring a level of mystique. From here, the duo become closer, learning more about one another and opening each other's eyes to a different point of view.
From here, the duo explores an abundance of details revolving around friendships and sexual relationships, with masterful writing and performances showcasing the mentality of each character. From here, the film explores what makes a relationship special and meaningful, from noticing and cherishing little details, introducing somebody to many new things and allowing yourself to come out your comfort zone with such a person. It does so without being cheesy, with a more subtle approach with their appreciation for one another perfectly encapsulated in simple facial expressions such as smirks and deep stares. The duo brings out the best in one another and help see things in certain ways, believing and listening intently every time, instantly building a clear connection that you root for.
But most importantly, this is a film about choice. Choosing your romantic interests. Choosing what routes in life you take. Choosing if you have kids or not. Choosing simply how you live out your life. Focussing on woman issues such as expectancies, demands and depictions, the film is empowering in declaring that the only one who decides what happens to someone is themselves. With this time period, it would certainly be a lot harder to deal with these issues, which is why the focus is kept tightly on the time spent between these two but the message for the current generation is loud and clear. It's your life, don't conform to stereotypes or random expectancies, just be you and support others to do the same.
The film is so deeply layered, with the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice intertwined with the developing relationship, providing heartbreak as well as some brilliant imagery. Art, literature and music play a big role in this film and its development, filling the film with loads of mysterious and hidden tidbits that will make this feature more satisfying upon rewatches. There are many details that link up so incredibly well in a film that is a true piece of art. Set through a female gaze with almost an entirely female staff, this film is expertly compiled, firing tremendously on all sides. Celine Sciamma's direction and writing are superb, combining with cinematographer Claire Mathon to create one of the most stunning films of recent years. There's a lot to admire within this film, from simple things such as symmetry within scene transitions and memorable frames leaving an everlasting imprint.
Simply put, this film comes together incredibly in all aspects, providing emotion, heart and humour whilst proving to be technically flawless. It's an incredibly beautiful film in aesthetic and story and undoubtedly one of the best of the year.
Final Rating: 5/5
This is a truly special film that I can't recommend enough, another that is available through Mubi! Once again, though, I would like to thank you for reading my review, I recently passed 1000 views total on this new site and can't thank you enough. Make sure to keep an eye out on more reviews coming soon, both old and new. Continue to stay safe and I'll see you in the next one!