Movie Review : Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Famous Spanish Painter Pablo Picasso once said; “We all know that Art is not the truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth”. Writer-Director Céline Sciamma’s 2019 film ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ is like a beguiling dream entrenched in a heartbreaking reality. 

Set in the 18th century France, the story follows Marianne, who has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Heloise by her Countess mother. The portrait is intended to be sent to a man in Milan, who by looking at it would decide if he wishes to marry Heloise or not. The Bride to be Heloise, having no intentions to marry had paled all the efforts by previous painters to sketch her portrait. Hence, Marianne must observe her by masquerading as a chaperone to complete her job. What follows is a brewing cauldron of love, passion and female gaze where the observer becomes observed. 

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At one point in the film, Heloise, disappointed at seeing her own portrait, sceptically asks Marianne, “Is this how you see me?”. The painter realises the obstacle of delving into the soul of her subject to bring life and expression into the portrait. With the passage of their bond, we realise that the expression on her face was a reflection of how she felt about her. The initially distressed and lost Heloise who vehemently wants to run away in search of liberty finds solace in Marianne. There is an inherent electric spark when the two are around each other even in their non-romantic moments. When Marianne plays ‘Sound of Storm’ on the piano, we see Heloise sitting beside her trembling like a leaf with her eyes gazing at her love interest like they are penetrating deep into her soul. The portrayal of the female gaze is intimate and alluring but never flirts with the idea of lechery.

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Each frame of the film is a masterful work of art. The director uses wide and long shots, giving enough time for the audience to observe the details in the frame. There is minimal use of objects in the background with pale white and blue colours of the walls having large glass windows allowing natural light to fall into the room enhancing the movements of the characters. It is truly a pure artistic delight. 

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Since the movie gives space to its viewers to observe the subtleties, fans of mainstream movies might find it slow but the gripping screenplay hooks one in right from the very start. Not even a single frame or an expression is gone to waste. In one breath-taking scene without dialogues, we see Marianne standing in the kitchen area with a fire in the chimney blazing behind her. The camera is still and soon Heloise enters the frame making Marianne smile at her. This kindles the attraction of a painter towards her subject.

The film also, if not in broad strokes, explores the areas of female friendship and abortion. The background score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier is not just used to set the theme of the scene but is also very smartly incorporated into the narrative to drive it forward. 

Even the stunning costumes by Dorothée Guiraud have a symbolic meaning to depict the state of mind of the characters. Heloise wears dark blue fabric to indicate dense emotions in one’s mind and by the end of the film, she is mostly seen in bright green demonstrating the resurrected vibrant life while Marianne generally wears maroon symbolising the fire within her.  The stunning juxtaposition of colours is the highlight of the cinematography by Claire Mathon. In one frame, we see Heloise leaving her dark blue rob on the bright sand, going straight into the bright blue ocean leaving footprints behind on the spotless beach.

The story, screenplay, background score, cinematography, costumes and production design could have been paled into insignificance if the actors wouldn’t have done justice to their characters. Award-winning actress Adèle Haenel is as sublime as Heloise in this career-defining role and has a rare talent of conveying multiple emotions in one gesture without making it too obvious. Her expertise as an actress is substantiated in the final shot of the film. Noémie Merlant as Marianne is a revelation and there couldn’t have been a better artist to play her character. It is hard to believe that the international cinema hasn’t fully utilised her talent for so long but in this breakthrough performance, she channels maturity and commands screen presence as only veterans do. It will be interesting to keep an eye out on what she does next. Both of them have ethereal chemistry, helping the audience empathise with the characters, which can put Call Me By Your Name to shame.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a love letter to the world of cinema which has a beating heart and a soul. No one should miss this gem.

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