Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Celine Sciamma’s formidable period piece about two women who find deep comfort and intimacy in each other is at once intellectually stimulating and emotionally devastating. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Celine Sciamma
2019 | France | Drama/Romance | 121 mins | 1.85:1 | French & Italian
R21 (passed clean) for some nudity and sexuality

Cast:  Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami
Plot: On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.
Awards: Won Best Screenplay & Queer Palm (Cannes); Nom. for Best Foreign Language Film (Golden Globes)
International Sales: MK2 (SG: Anticipate Pictures)

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: The Projector
Spoilers: No

It has been days, but my heart still aches for the film and its characters.  While this unbearable feeling will subside in time to come, I fear it might still linger on somewhere in my heart. 

A mere mention of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, or hearing strains from Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons – Summer in G Minor, RV. 315: III. Presto’ would bring back raw emotions and memories. 

How could a single film have so much unbridled power?  And how could a film be intellectually stimulating and emotionally devastating all at once? 

Her fourth feature after Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014), Celine Sciamma ascends to another level of filmmaking with a masterwork unlike any she has ever done. 

“In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.”

For one, it is a period piece, set in the late 18th century, quite possibly only a few decades after Vivaldi’s passing in 1741. 

We arrive at Brittany by boat with Marianne (Noemie  Merlant, who looks like Emma Watson if she was French), who is tasked to draw a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) so that the latter’s mother could convince a royal Italian suitor to marry her daughter. 

Sciamma directs with formal restrain two extraordinary performances in a film that is both exquisite and spare at the same time. 

The two women find deep comfort and intimacy in each other through the process of artmaking.  Theirs is a quiet if wholly passionate rendezvous; in fact, there is nary a non-diegetic sound as silence,  flickering fires, and deep breaths echo in their living chambers. 

“When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?”

Moreover, the lack of non-diegetic music is so palpable (and so right for its period setting—well, there was no Spotify or YouTube Music then) that the film’s two significant uses of diegetic music feel goosebumply (sur)real. 

There was also no telephone or Facebook then, which makes this lesbian drama all the more devastating, and perhaps much more so than, say, contemporary treatments like Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013) or Call Me by Your Name (2017). 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of 2019’s very best offerings that deserves the hype; it is also a formidable work about how women are subjugated and constrained in their various passions, hoping for a mythical catharsis that never manifests.

Grade: A




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