Lads, I’m not even going to beat around the bush with this one. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a film that I have been excited about for a very, very long time. Ever since winning Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at Cannes in May of 2019, the hype machine revved into full swing and all I could do was sit and wait patiently for the thing to finally hit British screens. Well, cut to February 2020 and many awards and nominations laters, and it was finally my turn to see what all the fuss has been about.
Set on the confines of a remote island off Brittany in the late 18th century, the film tells the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who is commissioned to secretly produce a portrait for an unwilling subject, a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). With the portrait intended for a fiancé that she does not want, Héloïse has rejected the efforts of previous painters, and Marianne is tasked with the unconventional job of creating from memory. With the intriguing premise set, the narrative positively erupts into a tension filled showcase of hidden looks and stolen glances, with the chemistry between the two women building to an almost unbearable level before inevitable passionate affair erupts to alter their lives.
Holy hell y’all, this is really, REALLY good. I can’t remember the last time I was so severely gripped by such a small scale picture, barely five speaking characters and extremely minimalist in its approach, but absolutely irresistible at every turn. From small displays of female friendship and companionship to sizzling displays of passion to dialogue on interesting feminist questions that are just as relevant today as they were in the 1700s, Portrait Of A Lady Of Fire goes so hard in such a quiet way that I am actually quite stunned by its forceful impact.
A lesbian drama coming out of Cannes with huge success and plaudits, the film has inevitably drawn comparisons with 2013’s Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Colour, but I can’t begin to describe how much better this is than that. Most impressively and interestingly, there is a marked difference in nakedness and graphic sex scenes between the two, with Portrait Of A Lady On Fire being much more sparing and timely in that respect. This does, nothing, however, to dent the sensuality and eroticism of the picture. It feels infinitely more intimate and real than Blue, perhaps the differences showing between the filmmaking sensibilities and gaze of a straight man (Abdellatif Kechiche) behind the camera versus a gay woman (Céline Sciamma).
Just like another extraordinary foreign language film of the last year, Parasite, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire feels like a picture that will reveal something brand new with every single rewatch. Everything about the composition and execution of each frame feels layered and deliberate and expert. It’s been a great fucking twelve months for world cinema, but here’s my question, where the HELL was this at the Oscars?
Not being as familiar with French cinema as I perhaps should, this film marks my first introduction to both Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, and I am absolutely flawed. As Marianne and Héloïse respectively, the pair share a chemistry that is so raw and so achingly palpable that at times you actually feel uncomfortably intrusive as a viewer. There is nothing exploitative or overly explicit about their scenes together, the impact of their affair is left to be felt in the weight of the on screen tension that they create, and it was a tension I was delighted to dwell in.
Both actresses do exceptional work here, but I have to say that Adèle Haenel in particular is positively hypnotic from start to finish. There is a smouldering intensity to her performance that you absolutely cannot take your eyes off, and that intensity doesn’t drop for a single second. It does seem slightly unfair to single out in such a fashion, though, as the real magic of the film is in the dynamic between these two brilliant leading forces.
Overall, you won’t be surprised to hear that I think Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is stunning. A compelling period piece that feels as fresh as a daisy, and not in a quirky modernised way like The Favourite, more in just an effortlessly timeless way that celebrates the emotions of characters more than their setting. At its core, a clandestine affair feels the same today as it would have 300 years ago, and both Céline Sciamma as director and Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as performers have showcases this exquisitely. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a bias for queer cinema, but this is a masterpiece by anyone’s standards.