I’ve agonized over writing this review for almost two weeks now. Not because I can’t think of anything to say about this movie, nor because I think it’s something that leaves very little room for discussion. Far from it. I just couldn’t seem to put into words how much this movie affected me, even days after my initial watch. The overwhelming beauty and emotionality of this film is difficult to portray without simply telling you to go watch it right now and see it for yourself, but I’ll do my best anyway. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a movie that will probably torment you in some way after watching it, but for all the right reasons. Not unlike the actual premise of the film, the movie itself paints such a vivid image of true intimacy and agonizing desire that it’s difficult not to leave the theater feeling a little bit heartbroken afterwards. As if we are all somehow joined in witnessing this relationship come together, thrive, and suffer all the consequences that come along with it. But we’ll get to that later.
For starters, the actual plot of the film is pretty much as simplistic as you can get. A painter is commissioned to make a portrait of a woman so that she can be married off to a man she knows nothing about and has no interest in. Marianne, the artist commissioned for the portrait, has worked with the woman’s mother in the past, and so is trusted to follow her daughter Héloïse around their secluded island home as a companion for walks and paint her in secret at night. This leads to Marianne being forced to constantly watch Héloïse’s every move during their walks around the family’s property, studying the intricacies of her eyes, nose, face, bone structure, etc. However, Héloïse isn’t an idiot and almost immediately notices how much Marianne is staring at her during their walks, though we soon come to realize that Héloïse has a very different interpretation of what those looks mean.
This is when the movie really starts to open up, as Marianne attempts to find more and more “inconspicuous” ways of getting really long, intimate looks at Héloïse. She tells her elongated jokes without breaking eye contact, asks her serious questions about her past that forces Héloïse to look at her directly, and shares long periods of time silently staring across the shoreline, sneaking in side-eyes whenever she gets the chance. As time goes on, however, Marianne quickly realizes that she has developed a real connection with Héloïse and begins to seriously struggle with the idea of painting a portrait of her just so she can be sold to some man she doesn’t know. Especially after learning that the arranged marriage to this man might’ve been the reason for her sister’s suicide, leaving Héloïse herself to take her sister’s place instead.
As time goes on and the characters of Héloïse and Marianne grow closer and closer, the movie transforms into the most heartfelt and intimate romance story I’ve ever seen, and probably ever will see. The characters have such a beautiful connection and genuine chemistry to one another that it almost feels like we’re just watching actual footage of a relationship between two women from the late 18th century, rather than sitting in a dumpy movie theater sandwiched between “The Invisible Man” and “Brahms: The Boy II.” Seriously, this film is one of the most immersive experiences I’ve ever had, and that’s entirely thanks to Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel’s unbelievably strong performances. They completely dominate every single aspect of this story, from the dialogue to the body language, and the fact that this film wasn’t submitted to the 2020 Oscars will continue to baffle me until the day I die.
The idea of the “female gaze” is something that also dominates this film, both literally and metaphorically. I know director Céline Sciamma has mentioned this during press tours and interviews before, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a movie that is entirely and genuinely female. As someone who’s not a woman, I may not be able to “fully” appreciate the importance of this aspect, but I can safely say that I felt its presence right from the start and could almost immediately tell that the movie was going to be far better because of it. When it comes to relationships, men are typically interested in the idea of two things: possession and pleasure. The whole “I’ll make you mine, if you make me yours” speeches interwoven between opportunities to do the dirty whenever possible. It’s very much a power dynamic based on commitment and protective instincts, rather than the desire for genuine intimacy, vulnerability, and equality between partners.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire blows this idea out the window and shows the feminine side of love in a way I’ve never seen before, which has definitely made me rethink the way I’ve viewed my relationships in the past, and will continue to influence how I make those decisions going forward. I don’t think most men realize just how many of our romantic traditions and gestures are based around the idea of possession, and the idea that you need to “make a woman yours and yours alone,” as if they are some kind of animal to tame and capture. And while it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have these feelings when entering or maintaining relationships, it’s important to get a variety of viewpoints on life, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems like the perfect gateway into exploring the feminine side of romance and eroticism. I mean seriously, there’s one scene in this movie that’s literally the most erotic thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life and it’s pretty much just two characters closely talking to one another. If nothing else, Portrait of a Lady on Fire proves you can make an amazingly intimate, heart-pounding romance film without a single sex scene, and goddamn is that refreshing to see.
In terms of the technical aspects of this film, the cinematography was also absolutely incredible, with every single frame bursting with richly detailed color and lighting. The entire movie has this fantastic softness to it, which only adds to the intimate feelings you get from watching these two characters develop their close interactions with one another. Sound is also a vital part of both the story and the actual filmmaking, only using diegetic music to reinforce the idea that Héloïse has been sheltered her entire life and doesn’t know the sound of anything beyond Latin hymns and church choirs. When music enters the story, it does so in a way that feels extremely important and exists to emphasize the development of a character, rather than just provide background noise.
I also hope you weren’t planning on eating popcorn during this movie because Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most intentionally silent films I’ve ever seen. There are so many scenes of people quietly doing housework, whispering between one another, or simply enjoying each other’s presence that it became a little hard to concentrate when the insanely loud soundtrack of a neighboring movie started blasting through the walls. For all you ASMR freaks out there (like me), you’ll also probably get more than a few tingles from the many, many scenes of Marianne silently painting every detail of Héloïse over the course of the film. The care and precision of Marianne’s execution during these scenes is pretty much a perfect reflectance of the film as a whole. Every detail has been carefully considered to create something that exceeds every expectation and beyond.
If you haven’t seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire yet, I don’t blame you. It was hard enough to find a theater playing it in my location, and with Parasite stealing the show this year in the foreign language department, I’d imagine most people wouldn’t even think twice about this movie. But you should. Because this movie will leave you obsessing over it for days after you leave the theater. It has such a raw intimacy to the filmmaking and acting that it makes it difficult to describe without underselling it, but if you get the opportunity to watch this, either in theaters or on streaming, you should take it without a second thought. I was even a little skeptical going into this one thinking “oh, I’m not a fan of romance movies, and this looks pretty slow and dull. I already know what’s gonna happen.” But goddamn, was I wrong. And if you don’t feel emotionally affected in some way by the end of this movie, you might need to check yourself into a hospital, because you’re dead.
10/10 – Masterpiece