“Your Presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth.”– Noémie Merlant as Marriane
By Cain Dennis
How fitting is it that the last movie I had the luxury of seeing in a theater before what feels to be the end of the world (That’ll date this review) deals so much in the theme of people in isolation? I’ve had a decent bit to reflect on Céline Sciamma’s newest work since seeing walking out of the theater a couple weeks ago. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a beautifully shot film. It’s two lead characters are believable and compelling enough to make up for a story that, to me, feels a bit too long-winded for its own good.
The story begins with Marriane (Noémie Merlant) who is a painter in the 18th Century hired to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without her knowledge before her upcoming arranged marriage. The two end up growing close and even form a romantic relationship while Marriane has to hide that fact that she is there under false pretense, hired by the bride-to-be’s mother who is giving her away. “Portrait” is very much a one-setting film. We only meet a very small cast of characters and see very few places. Luckily, we are stuck by a beautiful beach with steep cliffs and vibrant colors that give scale and life to its landscape. My least favorite aspect of the film is a secondary character, Sophie who spends a lot of time with the two main women. I did not enjoy the character or Luàna Bajrami’s performance as her at all. I feel the film would have been better off without the character’s apathetic reactions and deadpan expressions every time she’s on screen, I didn’t think that even one of her scenes came across as genuine next to the performances of the two main characters.. I haven’t seen Bajrami in anything else so I don’t wish to detract from her as an actress but her sub-plots weren’t interesting and the amount of focus the film gives her is unwarranted. Marriane and Héloïse are wonderful characters with an astounding amount of authenticity, they fit their circumstances and time period very well and express their emotions believably at every turn. This is really a story of a woman in her last days of freedom before an unwanted marriage that will separate her from her home and end her life as she knows it, and that aspect of its story is very moving.
While “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” presents us with moving characters and a very realistic and organic relationship, it also gives us a sense of passage of time that fits the isolation of the characters, you feel every single one of those days and nights pass, I was finding myself appreciating how we are taken on a long journey between our main characters, but ultimately ready for the film to find its conclusion, and I feel that its lack of a musical score adds to the sense of longness, but I don’t consider its lack of a score a negative aspect, as it was clearly intentional, the few moments where music is employed are made more impactful by it being mostly absent throughout the film.
When the film reaches its final sequence, we are met with an extreme amount of emotional and visual payoff. “Portrait” ends in a storm of catharsis unlike much that I’ve seen onscreen recently. Its final minutes and use of music are completely overwhelming in a positive way. Even having felt that the film was too long at times and nearing feeling bored with some of its scenes, its ending makes it worth it. It’s worth watching for its final sequence alone, but with its great lead performances and gorgeous camerawork, it makes for a pretty satisfying package overall.
I’m giving “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”