Love comes in all shapes and sizes. That's a universal truth. However, since the dawn of film, and arguably the dawn of storytelling, love's seemingly boundless reach has been confined to men and women. Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet, Harry and Sally, Kylo Ren and R- okay, so the last one isn't the best example. In fact, I'd argue that none of them are really great examples in today’s world because they're all just the same story retold over and over again. If you ask me, we've been long overdue for a bold, new retelling. That's exactly what Céline Sciamma's latest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is.
Now, while this is my first Céline Sciamma film, it certainly will not be my last.
To say that I was blown away by her direction in this film would be an absolute understatement. Just as the film's protagonist aims to carefully construct a perfect portrait of her subject, Sciamma imitates her own art with the way she crafts this film.
Just as each brush stroke is important in a painting, so is every detail Sciamma weaves in this film. Without giving too much away, her particular use of the number 28 was surprisingly so effective that it actually made me shed a tear. It'd be more fitting to say that her brush strokes are simply strokes of genius.
The film follows a young woman named Marianne, who is hired by a Countess to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse. Unfortunately though, Héloïse refuses to be painted because the portrait is intended for her suitor,a Milanese nobleman, and will finalize their courtship. Héloïse is not a free spirit, but she does appreciate her freedom. She knows that that freedom will diminish after she's married. Over the course of several days, she and Marianne bond over their ideas and stories, and in the process they also fall in love.
Portrait is a rare romance story not only because of its same sex leads, but because it opts to ignore their genders entirely and focus on the love that blossoms. To clarify, while Marianne and Héloïse know their relationship is forbidden, there is never an ounce of shame felt between them. Even though what they have is temporary, they are two souls who cherish every moment together, and watching that love flourish is something I think you can relate to whether you’re a man or a woman.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The cast is relatively small, mainly consisting of Noémie Merlant & Adèle Haenel as the two leads (playing both Marianne and Héloïse, respectively), and the two of them are beyond incredible. To be honest, there are no words for the emotional depth that each of them brings to their characters, and if you don't believe me, the very last shot/scene of the film will absolutely convince you otherwise.
While what they say to each other definitely matters, each of their emotional and facial expressions towards one another is way more telling of how they feel. One of the strongest examples of this is when Héloïse and Marianne attend a local bonfire. The two lock eyes across the flames, and in a beautifully ironic fashion, it's made very clear how the two feel for one another in the way that they look at each other through the smoke.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The sound design is okay; however, it's not the most compelling aspect of the film.
As you'd probably expect, in a film where painting is a major plot point, there isn't a huge emphasis on music; however, it is important to one of our main characters, and (without spoiling anything) surprisingly comes to be the very thing that brings the entire story full circle at the end.
For a period piece film, the production design, costume design, makeup, etc. is spot on, and being set at a different time period doesn't detract from the story. The bond between Marianne and Héloïse is so strong, their love is so relatable, and the subject matter is timely enough that you never really feel like you're in a different time period. It feels as if you're watching real life unfold before your very eyes.
"When You’re Observing Me, Who Do You Think I’m Observing?"
Genre: Drama. Romance.
Parasite may have won Best Picture, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is yet another contemporary foreign film that will set you ablaze. And it's more than just proof that you can tell an age-old story better with different variables. It's a beautiful reminder that like paint on a canvas, those we love and have loved stick with us forever.