Foreign films are often some of the most underrated, overlooked gems that slip by even the most avid film lovers. With the Korean masterpiece Parasite winning Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, hopefully more foreign films will make it to the American mainstream. One such movie that should not slip through the cracks is the French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a masterpiece in its own right.
In many ways, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (hereby lovingly referred to as Portrait) is a love letter to love. It’s a romance, but not in a traditional way where love is portrayed as a goal or ultimate destination. Through the excellent writing and direction of Céline Sciamma, love is portrayed as being similar to painting a portrait. It’s an art. There is a way it's done. There are rules. But breaking the rules is a must. Who’s to say when the portrait is finished?
This is one question Portrait’s characters face. In the eighteenth century, as all the men are away in some unnamed war, Marianne, a painting teacher, is recruited to paint a portrait of Héloïse, who is going to be married off to a nobleman, but only after he is given a portrait of her. However, Héloïse does not wish to be married, and so Marianne must pretend to be Héloïse’s walking companion and paint her from memory and stolen glimpses. This setup is the perfect canvas for the exploration of art. Much of the movie involves Marianne attempting to capture Héloïse’s beauty through painting.
Beyond beauty, Héloïse and Marianne's relationship is intimate. They are stark opposites. Héloïse has money and a life of ease but no freedom – she is stuck in the life others want her to live. Marianne has freedom and skill, but she is held back in her craft simply because she is a woman. She is not even allowed to paint nude portraits – only men can do that.
This film’s shots are stunning, too. Every frame of the movie is a painting. The island backdrop has rocky cliffs looking out toward crisp, blue waves. The costumes build upon the world without distracting from it. Even the portraits painted by Marianne are beautiful. Everything is meticulously crafted. The performances by Noémie Merlant (Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (Héloïse) are gut-wrenchingly truthful. The emotions are subtle yet palpable. The plot, acting, cinematography and even thematic significance all center around the intersections and divisions of beauty and love. These elements all intertwine cohesively, making this film satisfying and complete.
What elevates Portrait beyond just a fantastic romance is its thrill. The castle where Héloïse and Marianne reside is ominous, and its creaks and shadows are ubiquitous. The camera obscures certain images from both the audience and characters, maximizing suspense. Secrets abound: Marianne must hide that she is a painter; the two must hide their connection. The tension is never dismissed, only ignored. As their love grows, so does the tension. The inevitable end comes closer, becoming more real. It’s dark and blurry. It’s a fucking nightmare.
Portrait is, simply put, about love. It’s about romantic love, of course, but also parental and fraternal love. It’s about the love of stories, the love of art and the love of simplicity. Sciamma’s story is life-affirming. Don’t miss Portrait in theatres. It’s rare that a movie can elicit such powerful emotions. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is easy to love.
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