"Is that how you see me?" It is a loaded question, a poisoned chalice that is lobbed at one of the protagonists here. Her response tells us much, and it becomes the central crux of this film. A delicate exploration of so much (love, art, gender roles, personal freedom, private vs. public persona), Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the great cinematic triumphs of the year, a sweepingly romantic, deeply intimate work, equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. The impression it leaves on the viewer is potent.
For a work that finds so much honesty in the human condition, the set-up of Sciamma's narrative is a lie. In 18th century Brittany, a painter arrives to covertly paint a portrait of a young woman. Posing as a partner for her daily cliff walks, the painter slowly gets to know her charge, both verbally and physically, and their relationship begins to subtly shift.
Much of the power of this piece comes from the central duo, who give complicated, delicate turns. As our initial introduction to the film's world, Noémie Merlant offers authority but also a bewildering sense of a stranger in a new place. Merlant skilfully shifts from dominance in exchange to restraint. She is evenly matched by Adèle Haenel. There is a fire to Haenel's Héloïse that is never extinguished. Haenel's expression can shift, devastatingly so, turning a warm conversation cold. There's a combativeness to Héloïse seemingly born from a recent trauma. But there is a lightness to each of their turns, a complicated chemistry that has a lived-in quality. The duo give a masterclass in how to subtly build a romantic coupling.
There is a mastery too of what the audience does and does not see. Our gaze is with Marianne, which prevents us from seeing Héloïse for twenty minutes. We only see her face when Marianne sees it. The visual focus begins tight before opening up to take in the sweeping coast that surrounds the film's characters. Claire Mathon's cinematography is beautiful, bringing out the colours of
There is much in Sciamma's film, about womanhood, the female gaze, the restraints placed upon an entire gender. Men are barely seen and even less heard from, with their presence felt due to the change they will bring in the character's fortunes (Marianne's father, Héloïse's future husband, and reason for her portrait). While the focus of much of this film is on the central couple, Sciamma finds space for explorations of the other characters. Héloïse's mother, delicately played by Valeria Golino, offers an insight into the path her daughter faces, whilst Luàna Bajrami's Sophie is a welcoming presence, both as a confidant and, as her own narrative shifts, a figure in need of help. The craft and care Sciamma puts into her characters and the subtle way in which she develops and expands our perception of them is remarkable.
Few films will resonate as much as Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It offers a delicate touch and a resounding impact. You can't help but leave somewhat frustrated that, since the film's