“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” plays out very much like the painting of a masterpiece. It takes its time, slowly sketching out the skeleton. Its movements are careful and tender. Eventually, the details are filled in, and all of the elements come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma delivers a masterclass in patience and restraint, not rushing to intimacy or sexual release. Instead, she keeps the audience at a distance as the film’s lovers keep distance from one another. As they inevitably warm to one another, the audience warms to the picture. “Portrait” isn’t just another authentic and lovely entry in queer cinema, but the best romance of the year.
The film begins with Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter, arriving at an estate on a secluded island in the late 1700s. The countess of the estate has enlisted Marianne to complete a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The only problem is that Héloïse refuses to pose because she knows the completion of the portrait means she’ll be shipped away to Italy to wed a Milanese gentleman. Marianne poses as Héloïse’s maid, accompanying her on walks around the island estate and quite literally stealing glances in order to recount enough detail for her painting. Betraying Héloïse’s trust and doing the job that she was hired to do, Marianne works to create the portrait.
Sciamma composes a slow burn love story that revels in subtleties and nuances, shot wholly with one of the best, and most literal, representations of the female gaze in recent memory. The viewer is aligned with Marianne’s perspective, the camera tracing Héloïse’s face and body, her gestures and mannerisms. So much considerate attention is paid to her physicality. So much time is spent with her on these walks. So much intimate conversation is shared. It’s no wonder that the two eventually fall for one another. The emotion feels authentic, and the sexuality is tastefully realized. Sciamma, a queer woman herself, captures it all through a lens that makes the story true to life. It is no surprise that “Portrait” was the first film directed by a woman to win the Queer Palm at Cannes Film Festival.
The production of the film is as beautiful as its story. The harsh landscapes, golden beaches and rustic interiors are all captured wonderfully by Claire Mathon’s careful compositions. There is a certain warmth to the images that is never lost, much like the feelings between Marianne and Héloïse. The costumes by Dorothée Guiraud are also gorgeous without ever feeling overstated or out of place. The characters even wear them multiple days in a row, keeping a sense of realism in that regard that is typically overlooked in most historical dramas.
The methodical pacing of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” may put off some viewers. The slow burning nature of its central romance and its micro-affections will keep audiences uncomfortably distant. However, it’s this unorthodox approach that makes the film all the more interesting to examine. While the film would fall flat without some sort of release, the story’s climax delivers in a major way, offering a thunderous conclusion to one of the year’s most elegant pictures.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5