CAROUSEL REVIEWS

Passionate and Mesmerising, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE Lures You In Like a Flame

29 November 2019

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Passionate and Mesmerising, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE Lures You In Like a Flame

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.

Director: Céline Sciamma

Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Year: 2019

Country: France

Language: French

Runtime: 120 minutes


With its feverish, fervent, and fiery temperament, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is one piece you’ll never hear the same way again. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the iconic symphony echoes the forbidden love story the film tells – one that burns like a flame: bright, strong, and unremorseful. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows Marianne, a painter, in her trip to an unknown island. Tasked by the rich madame of a wealthy family, she has to do up a portrait of the young lady of the house. The portrait will then be sent to a chosen promising man to seal their engagement. Except, the young lady does not want to be painted and Marianne’s challenge is to paint her in secret.

Having won Best Screenplay and Queer Palm at Cannes this year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire deserves all its accolades and applause. The rigorous control writer and director Céline Sciamma has over her film shines through in the best way possible: every line is deliberate and purposeful, or made purposeful later, and every act, meaningful and precise. 

Working alongside cinematographer Claire Mathon—amidst gorgeous shots of landscapes and careful ones of the painter and her craft—Sciamma produces a film that teases and intrigues the audience. She builds tension and excitement, joy and pain, in an exquisite manner, with a camera that playfully makes fun of our expectations. 

Carefully dishing out abrupt cuts and conscientious frames, Sciamma demonstrates that she knows exactly what she’s doing to evoke every shocked gasp, every uncomfortable squirm, and every hearty laugh. The lines are witty and purposeful, and are constantly harked back on throughout the film, revealing more as you ponder upon them. Every allusion maintains a strong standing in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, not a loose thread out of place. The film runs so smoothly that you won’t even realise that you don’t know the name of the young mistress until the second half. 

Sciamma’s quiet mastery is accentuated by the complete immersion of diegetic sounds in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Music then works in the film’s favour, imprinting a lasting memory. From the lively soul of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” that begins tentatively and crescendos along with the budding romance, to the haunting but alluring original choir score that lies innocuously in the teaser, the choice of sound is bent on being memorable while accompanying the vivid scenes.

With such an intricate script, leads Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel definitely do it justice. The premise of the Portrait of a Lady on Fire requires Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to take note of every detail of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and commit them to memory in order to paint her later. Under Marianne’s watchful eyes, the audience is forced to pay equal attention to the subject of her portrait, which demands the impeccable control over acting that Adèle Haenel displays. The easy chemistry between the two leads also gives life to the natural flirting and bantering that Sciamma writes, making Portrait of a Lady on Fire a thoroughly engaging watch. 

Set in 18th century France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a simple love affair, topped off with romantic rendezvous and a must-have lovers’ quarrel. Yet, in Sciamma’s deft hands, the film unveils as many layers as you want it to, on women in art or on circumstances forced upon them. Without fetishizing the leads and their romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire provides an earnest and genuine love story that burns bright, leaving us to bask in its warmth even after the film simmers to an end. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire made its Southeast Asian premiere as part of the 30th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) to a sold-out crowd on 23 November and will be screening on 30 November. Unfortunately, the second screening is also sold out so keep an eye out for it to arrive on other screens. Meanwhile, enjoy the trailer first:

Always floating around, indulging in stories of all kinds. Please don't send me hate mail. I have low self-esteem.
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