portrait of a lady on fire noemie merlant adele haenel review

Year: 2020
Director(s): Celine Sciamma
Writer(s): Celine Sciamma
Region of Origin: France
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Color, 122 mins

Synopsis: On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman. (Source)

It’s common to see two people fall in love in film, but Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire makes us actually feel it. This isn’t another generic, on-screen superficial romance. It’s a passionate depiction of quiet admiration that blooms into something undeniably deep. It’s also a celebration of queer expression that’s both liberating and empowering, breaking through the norms of what movie romance is to show what it can be. With two killer performances from Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel, Sciamma crafts a story that’s timeless. In fitting form, her 18th century setting holds a mirror towards present day angst, longing and social oppression. In every way, this is an intoxicating experience that truly lingers beyond its monumental last frame, with an aroma that uplifts despite an unavoidable poignancy. 

A talented artist named Marianne (Noemie Merlant) has been called to an isolated island. A wealthy Countess has commissioned Marianne to paint a wedding portrait for her daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). The problem is, Heloise is reluctant of her arranged marriage. She refuses to pose for any artist. In response, the Countess has hired Marianne under the guise of a walking companion. She’s tasked with observing her during their time together in order to create her portrait in secret. This is an intriguing challenge to Marianne, who is game for the job apart from some natural hesitance. As soon as Marianne and Heloise meet, however, the two are drawn to each other. In each other, they find a deep bond that speaks to their disparate lives and how they’ve ended up where they are. With the deadline for Marianne’s portrait drawing near, the two women open up to each other in ways neither could’ve anticipated. 

There’s no other way to put this, Sciamma has created a cinematic delicacy, replete with painful nuance, heartbreaking precision and monumental restraint. Unlike so many films nowadays, hers is delicate and understated. Above all, she prizes and transforms silence and what isn’t said into literary depth. Filming her two subjects, Sciamma renders their relationship like a dance, with their feelings for each other a unwittingly crafting a song. Distant crashing waves or stolen glances say more than any line of dialogue could. With all these pieces falling perfectly into place, these two characters immerse us into their intimate rapture, and we’re swept up into a romance that we can’t and don’t want to shake. 

portrait of a lady on fire review noemie merlant adele haenel

True to form, the cast is sparse, relying almost exclusively on four women with their own hidden struggles. Noemie Merlant is our anchor point, giving Marianne the story’s grounded center. Though the film almost feels like a dream, Merlant balances ethereal poeticism with tangible presence. As Heloise, Adele Haenel shines as the story’s true subject. She’s someone we view from a distance, and yet we feel her repression and strength intimately. Together, Merlant and Haenel are an emotional whirlwind. The passion swirling beneath the surface constantly manifests in ways that hit hard. These two command the screen and each other by transfixing everything and everyone around them. Filling things out, Valeria Golino and Luana Marjami play tangential characters who add to the world of Marianne and Heloise in surprising ways. Marjami actually contributes one of the film’s most heart wrenching scenes. 

As mentioned, the film ends on a note that boldly ties together the complexities of what have come before, and with a resolution that doesn’t offer a clean break. Instead, we get a resonant primal bond, one that thrives within a world that’s resolved to ignore its validity. On the outset, this is a story about how art can make us immortal, capturing even just a bit of our spirit to say what words can’t. Bottom line, Sciamma has delivered an achievement that screams to be seen. It’s proof that her craft remains unrivaled in both its approach and humane, poetic urgency.