Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

An island off the coast of Brittany, the late 18th century: artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an isolated manor house, having been commissioned by a Countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in order to impress a potential suitor in the Countess’s home city of Milan.

Complicating what should be a simple assignment is the fact that Héloïse does not want to be married off; her sister, previously engaged to the same man, flung herself from a cliff to avoid matrimony and Héloïse, having spent much of her young life confined to a convent, has been effectively drafted in as a replacement, a successful marriage being vital to the family’s financial future. The headstrong girl refused to pose for a previous male painter, and so Marianne is ordered to pose as a hired companion for Héloïse so that she can observe her and paint her picture in secret. And then artist and subject fall in love.

Regard me

I’ll allow for the possibility that Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t the best film of the year. It may simply be the best film I’ve personally seen this year, and there’s always the slight chance I accidentally left some hitherto unknown slice of cinematic genius on the table. Still, I doubt it; 2019 has been an extraordinary year in cinema, but even taking that into account we don’t get very many films of this caliber, where every element is working in perfect concert to the same thematic and narrative purpose, every performance is flawless, every shot is singularly beautiful and essential to the film’s intent. Two in a year? Doubtful.

It’s literally awe-inspiring; you see enough movies and, when something seems to be just nailing it, a peculiar anxiety can come over you as the film progresses. Can they pull it off? Will they drop the ball? What almost inevitable inelegancy will crop up and flaw the jewel? It’s a weird feeling.

No such inelegancy crops up in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, an achingly melancholic, movingly romantic, simultaneously tragic and uplifting queer love story for the ages. Writer and director Céline Sciamma does, indeed, nail it, and the film feels like the culmination of her body of work thus far, exploring themes previously raised in Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Girlhood (2014) in a much deeper and more aesthetically complete manner.

The breaking of the waves

The main thrust is, of course, the taboo love between Héloïse and Marianne, but French filmmaker Sciamma layers in secondary, complimentary themes and subplots: the relationship between artist and subject (or muse), and the constrained and constricting roles afforded to women in the society of the time — and by extent, our current milieu. Is it a feminist film? Yes, that’s quite obvious, but more importantly, it’s a strongly female one; for the vast bulk of the film, the only men seen are the crew of the boat that deposits Marianne on the island, although male power is one of the main driving forces behind the plot — after all, the need to marry off Héloïse is what has brought our principal characters together.

But that remains in the background, with Sciamma preferring to focus on female relationships, and not just the central romantic one. The power dynamics that connect the Countess to both her daughter and Marianne are explored, and a key subplot involves Héloïse and Marianne helping servant girl Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Interestingly, the father is never seen; Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t need to insert oafish male villains to drive its points home when the male power structures, invisible but keenly felt, are ever-present. The script is simultaneously sparse and rich, never deigning to drown us in exposition or explanation, but rather imbuing each utterance, exchange, and scene with multiple layers of meaning and metaphor.

Inventing the gestures of love

It’s a subtle film in that respect, and also in the way it assumes some familiarity with classical art and literature on the part of its audience. The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice features as a thematic counterpoint to the action of the plot, while Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ serves as a cathartic trigger in the film’s closing moments. Cinematographer Claire Mathon, Atlantics (2019), works absolute wonders, adopting a carefully blocked and framed, painterly approach and offering up a number of tableaus that would not look out of place in any given National Gallery. This is not mere sophistication for its own sake; in the world of the film, the denial of true emotional agency means the arts take on a particular importance in the inner lives of the characters, offering solace and empathy in a society bereft of such comforts. There are no wasted elements — every aesthetic choice is also a thematic one.

Which means, of course, that Héloïse and Marianne’s love is a finite and fragile thing, and we and they know that the clock is ticking from the moment they meet. Indeed, the consummation of their love arrives so late in the proceedings that the time they do have together from then on takes on particularly tragic frisson. Leads Noémie Merlant, Heaven Will Wait (2016), and Adèle Haenel, Water Lilies (2007), are simply extraordinary in the central roles, and their easy chemistry shines through in every scene. Their emotional connection and irresistible attraction are apparent from very early on, which gives both their affair and its inevitable end a note of predestination, much like the classical myth that counterpoints it.

Some things are not fleeting

However, Sciamma adroitly avoids the most obvious denouement available to her (and overused in far too many queer romances, to be frank), offering us instead a final act that is, in its everyday, banal, almost indifferent cruelty, even more devastating than the more well-trod route: death at least offers some kind of closure.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a simply masterful film: a deeply affecting meditation on love, power, art, gender, connection, loss, and the inevitability of suffering. Not a single false note is played, not a moment is wasted, not an emotional string pulled at the wrong time — this is about as close to perfect as cinema gets.

5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is released through Madman Entertainment Australia