"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a film about forbidden love in 18th-century France, on a remote island. It's an exquisite drama and cinematic masterpiece that will follow you home, impossible to easily put aside.
When Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an aspiring young artist, is commissioned to paint the bridal portrait of Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a former nun, a strange restriction is required. Marianne is to paint Heloise from memory.
Seems that there was a previous artist who failed to complete the task because Heloise refused to sit for the portrait. She is adamantly opposed to the marriage, which was assigned to her after her sister mysteriously died while engaged to the same suitor.
At first, Marianne agrees to pretend having been hired by Heloise's mother (Valeria Golino) to be a companion. So she intensely observes Heloise by day and paints her at night. But as the two women become increasingly close, the truth surfaces. The dynamic between them evolves into a passionate affair. Impending doom comes into play and continuously intensifies.
Celine Sciamma ("Girlhood") scripted and directed this captivating love story. There is an erotic sensuality that permeates every frame of the film, visually and emotionally. The limitations put upon women back then still trickle about today. And yet, no bold attempt is made to dwell on them in this quiet character study.
There is a noticeable lack of musical scoring. Sciamma commented that she chose to "make the music arise elsewhere." And that she does, brilliantly.
The chemistry between Haenel and Merlant is astonishing. It never hits a false note. At the close of the film, Marianne displays a painting of Eurydice which she painted to honor her father who is also an artist. But, in truth, we know that there is a deeper, more personal connection involved in that particular choice.
The final shot in "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" will burn a hole in your heart. Celine Sciamma took home the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes last year for this glorious piece of filmmaking. Brava!