Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Director/Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Valeria Golino
Genres: Foreign/International Film, Drama, Romance, LGBT
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some nudity and sexuality
Release Dates: 2/14/20 (Wide Theatrical); 3/27/20 (Disc/Streaming)
Where to Watch: Hulu
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Sometimes it’s difficult to write a review for a movie that you believe to be absolutely perfect and the definition of pure cinema. It becomes less a review and more of a rave, although reviews in general run the gamut from rant to rave. Celine Sciamma’s masterpiece — a word I use very rarely — is one such film that deserves all the praise it has been given, and more. I only wish I’d seen it sooner [than in March, at the beginning of the pandemic], although I am grateful that I finally had the chance to experience it for the first time, and in my own home.

I laughed, I cried (a lot!), and was all in on the beautiful love story between two French women in the 18th century. Like the other perfect queer romance, Call Me By Your Name, Portrait of a Lady on Fire slowly builds the relationship between the two lovers in a believable manner. Every moment, movement, interaction feels natural and intended.

Credit should not only be given to Sciamma, but also to the brilliant actresses at the center of the film: Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant. Haenel and Merlant have better chemistry than most heterosexual couples, and it is entertaining and enlightening to see their characters fall for each other and experience the kind of love that would have been forbidden at the time. They also excel on their own, but their scenes together — especially once they both act on their feelings — are especially powerful and meaningful. I would’ve given both of them Oscar nominations (can you believe the film was entirely shut out?), although I would give Haenel for that last scene alone. (You’ll know what I mean you see it).

Praise should also been given to Luana Bajrami as Sophie (the maid), who undergoes an abortion that is barely commented upon, and who is essentially treated like an equal. In Sciamma’s film, all women are treated as equals, and you’ll notice that men have limited screen time and very few lines. (It definitely passes the Bechdel test). And, then there’s Valeria Golino as the somewhat surprisingly funny La Comtesse, whose motives for keeping her daughter (Haenel’s Heloise) at home make sense.

While the film is primarily a romance, it is also a deeply feminist film that plays with role switching and explores the lives of French women in 1770. It also has a fairly spooky, tension-filled beginning, as Merlant’s Marianne arrives and prepares to paint Heloise in an inconspicuous manner. And, at one point, Heloise and Marianne wear things like look like masks to protect them from the wind — how quarantine-relevant!

Sciamma is clearly a master storyteller and director; honestly, I will be both surprised and disappointed if this film isn’t studied in cinema classes. While it is emotionally draining, especially in the last 25-ish minutes — when I was crying almost non-stop — it is a film that should be dissected for its imagery, motifs, general aesthetics, etc. I’m sure I will watch it again, but I’m still reeling from that ending.


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