Portrait of a Lady on Fire review: Beautiful, bold and sensual
Katie Smith-Wong | On 28, Feb 2020
Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
Watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play
In her long-awaited follow-up to 2014 drama Girlhood, director Céline Sciamma takes audiences to 18th-century France in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film follows a torrid affair between painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), an aristocratic young woman whom Marianne is hired to paint.
Amid its stripped-down settings, Portrait of a Lady on Fire challenges conventions among her small, all-female cast. Whether they are a mother, daughter, aristocrat or servant, each role blurs the line of what defines a ‘traditional’ female character to create a narrative with a modern twist. In addition, Sciamma incorporates several themes such as coming-of-age drama, family and forbidden love to quietly reinforce the film’s melancholic heart – the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse.
The guarded Marianne is consistently overshadowed by her artist father but is able to have a career without resorting to marriage. This, unfortunately, is the fate that Héloïse inevitably has to face due to the sudden death of her sister. While their reluctant acceptance of their respective circumstances make them almost hardened, it also forms the common ground for their blossoming relationship.
Merlant and Haenel’s sensitive performances show control and restraint, as well as a tenderness that adds to the slow-brewing chemistry and the film’s seductive tone. Although there is minimal dialogue, Marianne and Héloïse’s passing glances and initially coquettish behaviour around each other leads them to lingering looks and an intimacy that is new yet undeniable. They also show a maturity that prevents their romance from falling into cliches and overindulgent drama.
Although the romance is understated and provocative, the film also offers a gorgeous canvas with rich music that helps to showcase Claire Mathon’s beautiful cinematography and colours. When combined with Sciamma’s natural direction, the audiences end up being swept away by a sumptuous work of art.
Overall, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Sciamma’s most accomplished film to date. Beautiful, bold and sensual, it is stunning to watch.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2022