“When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?” – Portrait of a Lady on Fire (BFI London Film Festival Review)

Rating:

On the wavy shores of an isolated island, a love blossoms in one of the most beautiful and effortlessly graceful films of recent memory. Here is a film with so much passion burning (pun intended) in every frame, that you can’t help but fall head over heels for across its patient and calming narrative. 

It is near the end of the 18th Century. On an island in Brittany, a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is tasked with painting the wedding portrait of a young woman, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), who is very much against the very idea of an arranged marriage. When Heloise’s mother leaves the island for a few days in order for Marianne to finish her work, Marianne and Heloise begin to form a friendship that only continues to grow in its intensity as the days go past.

For a film that focuses on an artist, it is quite aptly painterly in its cinematography. With careful precision going into each frame, the film is very easy to get swept up in. With a strong emphasis on natural light and compositions to die for, this is one of those films that you simply don’t want to end on just a visual level, and that’s before we even begin to go into the stirring narrative that fuels the burning passion behind the gorgeous imagery on display.



The love that begins to bloom between Marianna and Heloise feels incredibly pure, very much emphasised by the scarcity of their surroundings. The island which they spend their time together is devoid of men, and when they’re left to themselves (and their devoted maid Rosie) there is a sense of freedom and abandoned that feels spirited and long awaited, but also tragically limited in time. 

The relationship that develops between them seems destined to become physical from the first time they lock eyes. There is so much obvious attraction between the two that you also begin to ache with the want of seeing them succumb to their passion and let their feelings for each other crash against the shore. When they eventually do, the tragedy of time limited and time wasted comes to bear, as they come to terms with the finite moment that they have to spend with one another. That limited space of time allows their love to burn even more fiercely, and it is something of a quiet joy to fall for as the film unfolds. 

The romance is beautifully portrayed by Merlant and Haenel, both absolutely captivating on screen in moments both together and alone. Under the gaze of Claire Mathon’s sumptuous cinematography, they produce so much chemistry and enchantment that you nary want to miss a beat. Merlant, in particular, carries the film with a performance of strong will and integrity. 

With a great sense of how to use its period to develop the drama (there’s a pro-longed subplot involving the maid Rosie trying to abort her pregnancy), the film goes to great pains to demonstrate the effort that has to go into everything from the everyday details to larger issues that the women contend with. This adds more texture to the film’s canvas, making it an even richer experience beyond its already deeply affecting romance. 

It may sound like I’m gushing, and that is because I am. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the type of film that makes you fall so earnestly in love for it that you can’t help but wax lyrically. It is a gorgeous, achingly beautiful love story played out across a stage that feels tangible and filled with artistry. It is a film brimming with desire that has stood out amongst the crowd this festive in all its artistic grace. An elegant, endlessly gorgeous piece of film that hits you right in the centre of your heart. Glorious filmmaking. 

Dir: Céline Sciamma

Scr: Céline Sciamma

Cast: Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Prd: Veronique Cayla, Benedicte Couvreur 

DOP: Claire Mathon

Music: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, Arthur Simonini

Country: France

Year: 2019

Run time: 120 mins

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be on general release in the UK from February 23rd 2020.

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