Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of the front runners for the Palme D’or at Cannes Film Festival and won the Queer Palm, making Sciamma the first female director to win the award, as well as the Prix du Scénario. Undoubtedly, the film is well-deserving of these high awards and is Sciamma’s best feature yet. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set on an isolated French Island in the fin de siècle of the 18th century. We enter this world through the eyes of the young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is commissioned to paint a portrait of a woman for an organised marriage proposal. A complication arises, however, with Marianne being informed that the lady she has been commissioned to paint, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, who shines with her incredibly intense performance), has previously refused to be painted as she does not want to be married to one whom she does not love. Marianne has to paint her surreptitiously in the guise of a walking partner for her to gain her trust, but only to end up falling in love. 

This feature from Sciamma can be considered as wildly different from her previous films. She stated in an introduction preceding the screening at Portrait’s premiere at London Film Festival, that she has only made films “from a girl’s bedroom in contemporary France suburbs”, but the way she depicts this story through the female gaze with subjective styles of filming and intimately lit setting makes this lesbian love story feel timeless and not at all feel like a period film. 

Portrait remains beautifully shot throughout that the film itself feels like a painting; there are some frames that would make for a great laptop screensaver. The cinematography by Claire Mathon was lauded upon the film’s first release and deservedly so. Each wide shot is composed with a finesse that not only emphasises the isolation of these two characters, as their figures move against the predominately empty scenery, but draws attention to the tenderness of Marianne and Héloïse. When another character introduces their space, it feels like a disruption to the harmonious way these two characters become part of the island themselves, with the turbulent waves symbolising their wild passion for each other. 

The performances by Merlant and Haenel alone are deserving of the highest rating, yet where this film particular shines is through the almost poetic composition of the film itself — the film throughout invites you into this tender relationship with the sound design’s focus on breathing and Sciamma’s emphasis on close-ups of the actor’s features. 

Alongside Haenel and Merlant’s brilliant physical performances – their movement emphasising the words unsaid – Portrait of a Lady on Fire makes you feel every emotion shared between their characters, and remains fixed with you well after the film concludes. 

5 stars

Image: Movie DB

Annabel Goldsmith is a screen contributor at Forge Press.

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