Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)


Food: I realized recently that I had never tried a bao, so I went to Baohaus in the East Village to have a taste. I got the one with fried chicken on the inside and it was absolutely delicious. Something about the texture of the bread, it is almost syrupy with the chicken, like a new version of chicken and waffles. The place is hole-in-the-wall, but cool with graffiti all over the walls. I definitely recommend for a quick bite!

Film: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) is the kind of film that adds to your life significantly after watching. It find its way into the tender space within your heart and settles in, giving you something that you hadn’t even known you were needing. Similar to the way Miyazaki utilizes space and pauses (in Japanese it’s called “ma”), this film breathes and waits, allowing lingering glances to emote and the atmosphere is so visceral, it feels like you can taste the salty air and cold wind with its characters.

The piece starts with delicate paint brush strokes, which continues to mesmerize throughout the film. A beautiful art teacher with a powerful presence, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is asked by her students about a painting they found of a woman walking through a field, the back of her dress in flames. It is called “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” she says, her eyes filling with emotion. We are then swept away into her memory, floating at sea with a crate full of canvas, headed to an isolated castle by the cliffs of Brittany, France.

The 18th century castle wore a weathered facade, fawn colored walls and rough in texture. The sunshine was captured beautifully by cinematographer Claire Mathon, finding the airy, brightness of the beach, and equally finding natural light in the indoor scenes. Mathon depicts the scenery with an effortless gaze and purity. It is easy to feel like you are present with the characters.

As Marianne settles into her new temporary home, she picks up on small details in passing that help to inform the characters: a young woman who was set to be married fell from the cliffs and died, under suspicious, likely self-inflicted circumstances. Her mother, played by Valeria Golino, admits that she is now relying on her younger daughter to marry, who is meeting this proposal with great resistance. She needs Marianne to paint a portrait of her youngest, but due to the fact that she refuses to pose for any painter, Marianne must guise as a walking companion, and study her features well enough to paint her without having her pose.

Through brilliant direction by Sciamma, we first meet Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) with her back to us. Clouded in mystery, we are eager to see her just as Marianne is, and, hooded in a black cape, she stomps forward towards the water, while we follow behind. She runs, and then stops right at the edge of the cliff, before finally turning around. The entire film is a spellbinding example of the female gaze. We are intrigued. Natural beauty is highlighted – tousled and wind-swept hair, thick eyebrows, skin that mimics – not without purpose – that of an oil painting.

As any forbidden love, the slow-burning romance is felt deeply. It’s delicate and contentious. It is sincere and unmistakable. It attaches itself to keepsakes, ones that will flood its sufferers with passion despite any passage of time.

Director, Céline Sciamma, has said that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s” romance – and the artistic collaboration it inspires – mirrored, her own romance, with ex-girlfriend and actress Adèle Haenel (Héloïse). Speaking about this, she said, “We talked a lot about cinema [during our relationship] and we grew enormously intellectually. I also wanted to show that in the film: the lasting, emancipating effect that such a romantic encounter can have on your life.” One of the most untouchable elements of this story is the friendship that anchors the relationship between these two women. The kind of love that is bound to end, but the effects of it will be carried on throughout the course of their lives. It is a stunning portrayal of that kind of love.

The film is masterfully done, to say the least. It is quietly intentional, sprawling, and simplistic. Weaving absolute silence with poignant bouts of music, including a memorable piece by Vivaldi, the aforementioned beaming cinematography, and sharp dialogue – a clever, layered discussion of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice falls in harmony within the story line – “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is completely beautiful in every way. I am already looking forward to the next time that I will watch.

3 responses to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)”

  1. https://monthlycritic.wordpress.com/2020/03/15/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire/ Interesting read. Heres my review if you fancy a read. You’re welcome to follow for more.


    1. Loved it! Thanks for following – look forward to connecting in this movie blog community!


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