Review by Sean Boelman
Written and directed by French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the acclaimed new period romance that gained a ton of buzz out of its Cannes premiere. Thanks to a gorgeous visual style and a simple but nuanced script, Sciamma’s film is undeniably one of last year’s most beautiful.
The movie tells the story of a French painter in the late 1800’s who is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman in secret. This is certainly an idiosyncratic premise, but it works quite well, setting the stage for one of the most wonderful and subdued romances to have ever graced the screen.
To some, the film may be seen as unexciting due to the relaxed pacing and low-key nature of the script, but it is this deliberate pace that allows it to be so compelling. There is an undeniable poeticism about Sciamma’s work, both visually and narratively, and this is what gives the movie its momentum. The rhythm comes not from melodrama, but Sciamma’s unique style.
Additionally, the characters in the film are extremely well-written. Both of the leads are very complex and realistic characters, and the relationship between them is easy to support. Although their individual arcs do feel a bit too traditional at times for the movie’s own good, the way in which Sciamma brings them together is very unique.
A significant part of what makes these characters so effective is that the actresses who bring them to life give performances that are among last year’s best. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel have excellent chemistry together, but they are also very strong on an individual level as well. Haenel is particularly impressive in her role, bringing a lot of nuance to the character.
On an emotional level, the film is certainly very well-done. Sciamma crafts her narrative in a way that brings the maximum possible emotional punch, culminating in what is arguably one of the best ever endings to a movie. Few viewers will leave the theater feeling untouched by what they have seen, and many may even leave without a dry eye.
Yet even with a script as impressive as this, the true highlight of Sciamma’s film is its wonderful visual style. The cinematography by Claire Mathon is pristine, and although this movie is unfortunately not receiving the accolades it deserves, Mathon’s work will not go unnoticed. Additionally, the score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini does an excellent job of complementing the mood of the film.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is undoubtedly one of the most understated masterpieces of last year. While it is disappointing that it didn’t get more awards attention, this stunning work of art still deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in theaters on February 14.