Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Kevin Montes
2 min readMar 30, 2020

Céline Sciamma’s new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is unlike most of films released in 2019. It definitely isn’t one to create a popularized uproar of praise similar to Parasite’s momentous award run in 2019 and at this year’s Academy Awards. It does layover the intricacies that she brings to her craft dating back to films like Water Lillies and Tomboy. But unlike those films, this breathes new life to a genre that always needs a boost.

This is a tale of Marianna, a painter commissioned to paint the portrait of Héloïse, a daughter of royalty to be wed to a Milanese man if he fancied her based on the portrait. Throughout her time there, Marianne slowly falls in love with Héloïse and the love is requited.

The film is told through the lens of Marianne and the story behind the painting of the aforementioned title. And like stories told of memories past the details are essential for understanding the mannerisms and ticks of the two, as well as the caretaker Sophie.

The two leads, Noémie Merlant and Adéle Haenel, are master at their craft. Every moment we spend with these characters together, there is barely any dialogue. They let their physical movements and face tell their feelings as they become more and more intimate. It’s a great attribute for the film, as most historical pieces carry a lot of dialogue and wit for the valiant hero, but this film has no hero.

Celine Sciamma is one of the more well-rounded directors that can always create a beautiful shot without sacrificing time to get the right take. As the film borders more on motion and simple but deep one-liners, the motions need to be right to get a grasp of the reality of their love and situation. Every part of the film — every scene rather — is pivotal to the story, especially the subplots with Sophie.

The cinematography is one of the most remarkable things about Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It never overshadows the leads when they are center focus. It also has a lot of shots that cement images of paintings. The amount of detail Celine Sciamma brings onto her canvas with bright warming colors, specifically the orange hues from the flames that cast shadows over Marianna. It carries a lot of modesty, as in it never feels pretentious.

Celine Sciamma continues to demonstrate how effectively one can weave a beautifully stunning piece of cinema, from an otherwise simple love story.

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