Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

This film is directed by Céline Sciamma, and it stars Adele Haenel, Noemie Merlant, Luana Bajrami, and Valeria Golino.

For several days I’ve been reading on social media raving reviews about this film. So when the screener arrived, I couldn’t wait to watch it. It’s rare when you clearly remember the day and time a movie was watched (for the first time) unless the film leaves an impact on you. It was on Sunday, 12/8/2019, at 5:23pm when I placed the screener into my laptop and began to watch what will become my new favorite film of this year.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” takes place in the late 1700s and tells the story of a talented artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and the daughter of a countess, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), who’s a soon to be married. Marianne is hired to paint a portrait of Heloise after the previous artist had a difficult time painting her as Heloise refuses to get married. The painting is meant to be sent to the man who Heloise is supposed to marry. The only alternative to get a portrait is keeping the truth from Heloise by tricking her into thinking that Marianne is a companion. After Heloise suffered the loss of her sister, who committed suicide, she hasn’t been allowed to go for walks as her mother fears for her life too. Marianne must try to paint Heloise from memory. This film has plenty to dissect and admire, but I’ll start with the acting. The two leading ladies give exceptional and unforgettable performances conveying an incredible amount of emotion with their eyes and body language.

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The scenery is used wisely as Claire Mathon masterfully captions the two women with the beautiful seaside and enormous rocks behind them, giving a sense of relaxation which immerses you into their world. I admire the different shots in the film from the areal shots to the ones from behind the character’s head (giving us the perspective of the character). It’s no secret that period pieces are some of my favorite films one reason being has to do with candlelight scenes. The lighting and shadows can be portrayed in several techniques, and it’s fascinating. Several scenes are artistically and beautifully balanced.  Costume design is beautiful, and the screenplay is one of the best of this year.

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We see Marianne, a talented painter, living in a world where women aren’t allowed to paint nude men (prevent women from doing great art). On the other hand, we also see Heloise, daughter of the countess who is now forced into marriage after her sister died. We have two women from different backgrounds heading into different futures. Marianne can travel and display her artistic abilities (granted she must submit her work under her father’s name) but doesn’t entirely have her future written out for her. Heloise, on the other hand, must marry and raise her own family. I admire the different forms of arts; this film incorporates painting, music, and stories. I love how women in this film are allowed their opinions and a wide variety of art knowledge. We also get a third storyline with the woman who’s the maid, and her story, in particular, is one about a controversial topic. Lastly, we get to witness the affection between Marianne and Heloise, a story about first love that more than likely ends like most stories. The last scene is one I’ll remember years to come. Some have compared it (the last scene) to a film that came out two years ago, and they claim it gives it a run for its money, I’ll take it a step forward and claim that it significantly surpassed it.

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This movie is the most feminist film of this year as its written, directed, and filmed by a woman. Its female leads navigate female themes, and this movie will be the one film courses will go back to when telling female stories from female filmmakers. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” lit a fire in me that will burn for years to come.

I give this film a 10 out of 10

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