There is something truly captivating about fire. For thousands of years humans have been fascinated by it and even today people remain to be spellbound just watching embers burn. For something so powerful and destructive, there is also something so innately calming about it as well. While watching “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” I couldn’t help but feel as though the emotions conjured up by the film were eerily similar to the trance of staring into a bonfire at night. The raw emotion within the movie and the way the narrative progresses feel as though you are observing twigs splinter from the heat and logs gradually smolder, echoing the dialectic relationship of a flame which exists somewhere between devastation and ultimate tranquility.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a French historical-drama which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. Although it received wide critical acclaim from writers and critics alike, “Portrait” only saw a limited release in theaters across America. While it was largely inaccessible to most audiences during its theater run, “Portrait” is now available to watch on the streaming service, Hulu. Directed by Celine Sciamma and starring Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is easily one of the best foreign-films made in recent years, and one which you do not want to miss.
“Portrait” takes place in France during the late 1700s and follows the story of Marianne, a young and talented painter. Marianne has been commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman named Heloise, who has been set up by her mother to be married to a wealthy man from Milan. Knowing that the portrait will be used to seal her marriage to her suitor, Heloise refuses to sit for the painting as she has no desire to marry a man whom she does not know. With this in mind, Heloise’s mother hires Marianne to paint Heloise without her knowledge, under the guise of being a hired companion to spend time with her. While Marianne paints Heloise in secret, complications arise as a strong bond forms between the two women, which soon blossoms into something passionate.
“Portrait” is best described by one word, beautiful. Each shot feels as though it was so purposefully chosen, making every frame in the film feel as though it could exist on its own as an oil painting. Every choice made by Sciamma helps build the film into something so expressive. The camerawork creates a romantic atmosphere which adds so much to every scene, the lighting conjures up so much emotion through the way things are lit and how shadows are cast, and the set design and location-shooting flawlessly capture a picturesque view into the chillingly stunning Western-French coast.
As far as technical elements go, this film is a work of art, but beyond just the formal aspects of “Portrait,” the acting of the two main leads makes an already memorable film completely unforgettable. Both actresses offer such genuinely touching performances and their chemistry feels so authentic. Their characters’ romance is poignant, and Merlant and Haenel add so much true passion and sentiment to this heartbreaking story.
“Portrait” came in a year filled with spectacular foreign-films, including the Oscar-Winning, “Parasite.” For those still wary about charting the unfamiliar waters of foreign-language movies I assure you that “Portrait” is a great step further into acclamation. The subtitles do not detract from the story in the slightest, and the French language adds something to the film that might have been missed if it were in English. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is hauntingly beautiful, both visually and narratively speaking. The movie will stay with you long after it is over and the devastating ending ensures that it will hold a place in your mind in the days following your viewing of it.
Cover Photo: Boston University News Services