‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Jonathan Lee, Writer

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an underrated offering released during the most recent season of cinema. Though it is not a bombastic action film like the Marvel superhero productions or a tense thriller like the Oscar-winning “Parasite,” this tale of love between two women set in 18th-century France is more subtle and intimate. The direction of the visuals and sound elements are delightfully moody, the acting from both leads (Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant) possesses emotionally-charged chemistry. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of the more realistic romance films to come out in the past few years, with its thematic direction highlighting how even the most powerful love struggles to last.

From a visual and auditory standpoint, director Celine Sciamma demonstrates her film-making skills. The visuals retain a rich atmosphere by primarily relying on candles and natural lighting to emphasize the period, setting and the taboo nature of the characters’ love, with respect to the prejudices of the era. 

The film also takes place in a remote island estate, creating a sense of claustrophobia. The sound’s direction in this film differs from its counterparts because it lacks a musical score, with the sole exception being a pivotal scene featuring an eerie acapella choir during a bonfire gathering. The lack of a score–with one exception–creates a sense of suspense as each word, sound and movement from both leads suggest an immense and lingering weight, both physically and emotionally. The skill Sciamma demonstrates in her performance is why I found the movie to have such a wonderfully moody atmosphere. 

The performance of both actresses carries the heart of the movie. Merlant’s acting gracefully represents the integrity of Marianne, a painter who is initially unable to tell her subject and eventual lover that she is painting her. Such secrecy results in small-yet-effective mannerisms, as Marianne’s subtle demeanor, fleeting facial expressions and darting eyes speak to the spectrum of emotions her character feels absent of overt notice. 

Adèle Haenel’s acting also expertly illustrated the stoic nature of Heloise, who wears convent clothes that cover her face with a long hood. Haenel manages to create an emotional resonance despite suffocating limitations. Overall, the acting skills both lead actresses present in the movie and the manner in which they bring their characters to life invoked unbridled emotion. 

Finally, the themes in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” offer one of the more realistic romantic stories in cinema over the past few years. The film demonstrates a reluctant acceptance of the idea that powerful romances do not always survive. However, the main characters still learn and mature from the experience. This theme feels important, for it deviates away from the genre’s tendency to provide the false impression that the end of a potent romance would feel devastating. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” sends the message that one can both learn a lesson and experience relief when a relationship withers. On the latter theme, the film showcases a unique view on the relationship between artist and subject. This unique view is seen with Heloise when she states that, despite being the subject, she still has agency and makes her own choices on how the artistic process is finished. The effective presentation of these evocative themes is what makes the movie arguably the most realistic romance films in recent memory. 

 Overall, these aspects are why “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of the best and most underrated movies recently released. The sole criticism is that the first act felt a little slow, though the film quickly recovers by the second act. For those interested in seeing the film, I recommend seeing “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” while it is still out in theatres.