“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the sweeping romantic epic we deserve. Okay, this film doesn’t feature any Titanic-level disasters, but it is an excellent romance. Celine Sciamma’s film (in French, with subtitles) is touching and sweet, but also shows the harsh world that women face, both then and now. Despite being a 2019 film, it showed at Fenway’s Regal Theater as well as other local theaters last week due to Valentine’s Day.
Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is a painter, summoned to a remote island in Brittany to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise is to be married to a gentleman from Milan, but her mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), is the only one who is happy about the match. Heloise refuses to pose for the portrait, so her mother instructs Marianne to observe her during daily walks and paint the portrait in secret, without Heloise knowing why she’s being watched so closely. What follows is a beautiful tale of love, caution, failure and hope.
Marianne and Heloise are both constrained by their gender in 1770s France, though they approach it in different ways. Marianne tries to find the good in the situation for Heloise, while Heloise flatly refuses to find a positive side. Marianne is the newcomer to this situation, and is likable as she does her best to befriend Heloise, who hides behind silence and scarves. Heloise is harder to understand for both Marianne and the audience, but the discovery of her character is worth more for having to win it. The third character in an eventual trio is not her mother, but her maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami). The three grow closer when the Countess leaves for an extended trip towards the middle of the film. The three actresses play off each other well, and the film feels most natural in these scenes. What you are now no doubt noticing is the complete lack of male cast members. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” does have a few men, but they are cameos at best. The real focus is Marianne and Heloise.
This film does not have a traditional score; the only music played is in the world of the story. For example, Marianne plays the harpsichord for Heloise, mistakes and all. The sounds in this film—particularly the hard flicks of paintbrushes and the crashing of the open sea—are truly allowed room to grow and shine. Speaking of painting, the cinematography (Claire Mathon) shows in great detail how hard it can be as Marianne works on Heloise’s portrait throughout the film. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has a great love for details, and they help center the film in its chosen time and place.
Celine Sciamma’s film is beauty and pain put to screen. It is a masterpiece, especially as Haenel delivered one of the greatest performances of the year. This film’s love story is not to be missed.