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Film Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

29 February 20 words: George White

This French language film has received over 100 nominations, including nods at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes...  

Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami 
Running Time: 122 minutes

Portrait of a Lady on Fire centres around a painting, as esteemed artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) travels to the island of Brittany to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the daughter of a wealthy woman, so she can marry a potential suitor in Milan. It is fitting, then, that this film is itself a work of art, a masterpiece in visual filmmaking that captures an emotional and passionate love story through the most beautiful lense. 

Director Céline Sciamma’s personal direction and meticulous attention-to-detail makes this one of the most visually stunning films in recent years. Each frame is perfectly thought out, always shot to emphasise the intimacy between the characters and the sheer emotional weight of the story being told. The imagery is truly impressive, with certain scenes channeling the qualities of spectacular artwork, leaving an impression on the audience long after leaving the cinema. 

This is highlighted most impactfully in one of the film’s climactic scenes, as Marianne and Héloïse attend a gathering on the beach and finally realise their feelings for one another. The sequence plays out like poetry, their emotions and passions vividly demonstrated without a word spoken. It’s beautiful and poignant, and may well be one of my favourite scenes of all time. 

The absence of a score strangely helps to emphasise this poignancy further, as the audience is fully immersed in the world on-screen. Each brush stroke and floorboard creak acts as its own score, and when there is music - organically introduced by the characters themselves - it is excellently executed and perfectly complements the visuals.

The chemistry between the two actors is intoxicating, capturing the audience in their complex relationship from the very first moment

It must be said, however, that this is a slow-burner. Sciamma takes her time unravelling each scene and gives every character and interaction a lot of time to breathe, which - while certainly effective in creating romantic tension - may not work for everyone. 

Yet even for those who are not fond of this type of filmmaking, the performances from the cast will undoubtedly be enough to keep your attention. Merlant is outstanding in the lead role, effortlessly showcasing Marianne’s intrigue and emotional ambiguity to an impressive degree. And Haenel is ridiculously effective as Héloïse, her often obscure facial expressions and body language demonstrating the inner struggles of her character, as she juggles her newfound feelings for Marianne with the terrifying prospect of marrying a man she is yet to meet. Haenel’s ability to say so much with so little is extraordinary, and is highlighted most clearly in the film’s tear-jerking final sequence. 

The chemistry between the two actors is intoxicating, capturing the audience in their complex relationship from the very first moment. Each sideward glance and warm smile has the audience rooting for their success, and every line of dialogue is gripping and powerful. The characters' importance to one other is clear to see, making the emotional beats devastatingly effective as the story unfolds. 

This stunning bit of filmmaking is undoubtedly a work of art. Sciamma’s intimate direction brilliantly captures the chemistry between the lead actors, helping to tell a devastatingly effective story of two lovers who could never be. It is a powerful, poignant visual treat, and is certainly worthy of its extensive praise. 

Did you know? Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel are ex-lovers. They split amicably prior to filming

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 5 March 


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