Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Review

Following the critical acclaim the film received, Odin O’Sullivan reviews the period drama ahead of its Irish release.

The fourth feature from acclaimed French director Celine Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire chronicles the growing relationship of Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a young woman destined to marry a man she has not yet met, and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the artist hired to paint her portrait. Marianne must paint Heloise’s portrait, but she refuses to sit for any painter, thus, she must paint in secret to finish the work in order for Heloise’s mother to send it off to her unseen suitor. This allows for a first half of lingering glances that exist initially for Marianne to imprint Heloise’s features in her mind to then be painted, but soon begin to take on a new weight when Heloise begins to gaze back. Noémie Merlant has the rare talent of conveying boundless emotions through her eyes alone. As the eyes of the artist they absorb detail, they deconstruct and reconstruct forms, and they aim to possess the subject on their canvass. 

The lead actors excel in what could traditionally be described as airless, or staid settings, such as a portrait sittings and formal discussions in the salon. Air and colour are breathed into these scenes by Merlant and Haenel’s easy chemistry. Lines of dialogue that may initially seem innocuous are in fact laden with meaning. The latter half of the film is its strongest. All that is set up during the first half of gorgeous beach tableaus and secretive sketching flourishes into a sensuous, fleeting romance, as well as a kind and unpretentious look at female friendship. 

Often period dramas become visually overstuffed, ostentatious and grotesque in their attempt to flex their design and costuming muscles, losing their story amidst the the ruffles of so many expensive dresses. In Portrait, however, everything from production design to the costuming is stripped back, used to augment the story and mood rather than detract from it. Each shot utilises space, colour, and light as a painter would, crafting stunning landscapes, portraits, and still lives in real time in order to convey the beauty of the central relationship.