Portrait of a Lady on Fire- A Roaring, Confident Masterpiece

Rating: 5 out of 5

The myth of Orpheus has preoccupied artists for generations. While the tale of Eurydice and Orpheus is perhaps not the most popular greek-myth, it’s prominence throughout literary tradition is essential to understanding an artist’s approach to the world. The story of Orpheus has garnered this obsession and fervor through its unforgiving ambiguity. Readers and listeners can comfortably ask themselves why Orpheus ultimately chooses to lose his love instead of clinging to her and following the rules set before him by the underworld. Céline Sciamma has punctured and penetrated Orpheus’ willfully beautiful melancholy of choosing the memory of a lover over forcing them back into a physical existence, instead immortalizing their feelings and being through art even if that means losing them.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is as perfect a movie as they come. In a word, it’s elegant, almost suffocatingly so. Each shot is placed with grace and poise, each color tuned to a cohesive palette, all expressing the painterly sensibility of the protagonist, Marriane (Noémie Merlant), whose performance features an unrelenting gaze that absorbs and internalizes every movement and texture of the world around her. She is a painter in the twilight years of the eighteenth century commissioned by a wealthy woman to paint a portrait of her daughter on an island chateau. The young woman, Hélöise, is notoriously difficult to paint because she refuses to pose, her face is wisely hidden for the first fifteen-twenty minutes of the film, she is an enigma of roaring passions and stirring emotions. Marriane’s infatuation with Hélöise quickly grows from a subject-painter relationship to an unspoken friendship to something more. To spoil exactly what that more is would be an injustice to the organic, dexterous storytelling displayed in portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Obviously, it’s a love story. If one has glimpsed any press-coverage or trailers for this film, they will be well aware what to expect from the narrative, however, much like Call Me By Your Name just a few years ago, this film explores the aches, growing-pains and distances of love, the bittersweet, intangible and fleeting feelings that despite time, space and proximity linger. The setting feels inextricably linked to the romance between the two leads, the solitude of the island, the crashing waves, the lonely, creaking chateau all culminate in an overwhelming sense of focus, as if all the circumstance, calamity and restlessness of the world halted to allow these two lovers their allotted moments together. 

Much like Parasite, Marriage Story, Monos and Midsommar last year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is such a stellar film due to its ability to speak for itself. There is no amount of criticism, public outrage, or misguided opinion that could reduce the importance and impact of this film. Why it was ignored at last years Academy awards is just another nail in their coffin, they ignored what is surely not only the greatest film of last year but one of the best of the decade, rivaled for this reviewer, only by the Dardenne brothers Two Days, One Night. It’s a film that has canonized itself in the cinematic lexicon purely on it’s quality alone and perhaps the auteur status of Sciamma working towards this film for her entire career, somehow encapsulating all of her themes and style into a single unit of formidable power.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a force to be reckoned with. It’s an exquisite and sublime gesture of human connection, of the messy and wonderful ways in which the art we create intersects with the people whom we have loved and the painful, often heart-wrenching nature of our brain’s ability to remember in spite of ourselves. Some things are fleeting, others are not, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is one of those things that isn’t.