Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel and Luana Bajrami.
Directed by Céline Sciamma
Written by Céline Sciamma
There’s a rich texture to the work of Céline Sciamma that almost acts as artwork itself, and her latest release, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is no different. On an isolated island in Brittany towards the end of the eighteenth century, a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is brought to the land to capture the image of the soon-to-be married Héloīse (Adèle Haenel).
The film follows the narrative from Marianne’s perspective throughout the majority of the story, and as a result, the intricacies of her character begin to familiarise themselves with the viewer. For a story that develops a complex relationship such as Marianne and Héloīse’s, such an attention to detail is necessary to engage the viewer with their relationship. Céline Sciamma succeeds brilliantly in this regard, and every detail feels as if it has great importance within the film because we are so tuned in to the reactions that each character delivers after any change of emotion or moment of drama.
The combination of pristine cinematography matched with a location that feels both sublime and personal creates an overall atmosphere that draws in the viewer, just as the two leads are drawn to one another. You feel as if the characters have escaped from the confines of the outside world, and for a brief period of time, you’ve escaped with them. If film is defined as a medium for escapism, then ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ stands as a powerful testament to the strength of this art form. The world our leads inhabit feels rich with character, from the harsh dangers of the cliff face to the secret caverns that lie beneath, the success of the location is that it acts as another whole element of the narrative, working as a reflection of each scene’s emotions. This idea is only further emphasised by the stunning portraits that come from the sweeping hands of Marianne, despite their supposed permanence contradicting the fragility of the relationships developed within the narrative.
In this release, Céline Sciamma solidifies her status as one of the most exciting directors working today, using techniques that feel refreshed by her employment. Her stories may appear delicate at first, but hide depth in the context of their creation. The expression of her own personality is beautifully painted across the screen, and the consideration and care that she brings to her work is unparalleled. Despite the narrative first appearing as fairly simplistic, the subtle introduction to themes of abortion, homosexuality and feminism feel less like an education on these subjects, and more of a necessity.
I would highly recommend that you take some time to enjoy this film, as it’s one that definitely shouldn’t be missed. It’s currently available for streaming over on the Curzon website, and may just be the perfect bout of escapism from the regularity of quarantine.