Movie Review: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire"

Beauty comes from simplicity: don’t lean too hard on any theme, any visual, any trope. Portray a real life, a real relationship. Portray, to some extent, reality.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, by Céline Sciamma and starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, tells the whimsical tale of Heloise, a woman who refuses to sit to be painted, knowing that the painting would be sent off to court her marriage. Marianne, the artist who has come to paint the portrait, must paint Heloise solely from living with her and observing her during conversation. As their relationship continues, however, it divulges into love. The following story makes you smile, weep, and smile again as you experience the ups and downs of a pure and emotional connection.

The credit for this movie lies upon the shoulders of Sciamma: the visuals of this movie are hauntingly familiar, beautifully sacred, and maintained to create an emotional attachment. Everything in this movie comes back: Sciamma is masterful at using images to her own advantage. At one moment a song makes you feel immense joy, the next moment it makes you weep. Something as simple as a number can have great emotional importance.

This movie is a subtitled film, being originally created in France, with the true title being “Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu”. However, in this film specifically, the subtitles offer no harm. This is not only because I hold strong pro-subtitle opinions (unlike my partner Olivia), but also because so much in this film is unspoken. Dialogue is sparse; visuals are ample. This presents a general universality to the film: it is incredibly accessible, because of the importance of the visual, as well as the importance of music. I believe, to some extent, that I would have a similar viewing experience without the subtitles. This is in no way saying that the dialogue is bad, because the dialogue is beautiful. Rather, this is true to the nature of Sciamma’s use of strong themes and images: I learned all I needed to by seeing Heloise standing in a field, staring at me, as the bottom of her dress rises up in flames.

The most poignant moment of this film, and the moment that I feel I must talk about, is the last three minutes. In the final minutes of this film, my heart burst open. In one of Sciamma’s three “endings”, Marianne sits in a balcony, staring at Heloise, as classical music begins to play. For a sustained period of time we see nothing but Marianne, only seeing her slowly tearing up. These few minutes were incredibly emotionally sound, proving to me the importance of sustained images. The music playing had already been established, so I, the viewer, knew the importance. Then, when it began again, I instantly began crying with Marianne. Sciamma was able to turn a prolonged period of essentially nothing, no plot, no major changes, into an emotionally exhausting moment.

I cannot recommend this film enough. This film features not only an LGBTQ+ relationship, but a real one. This film features beauty and simplicity in a way that I have not seen it before. The retained image is incredibly powerful.

- Henry

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