Desire is all about delay.
The anticipation, the angst, the longing all cascading towards a moment of passion.
It’s a difficult trick to pull off in the world of cinema, but Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” builds from embers into a raging inferno of emotion in one of the best romance films in ten years.
The French filmmaker progresses from a trilogy of coming-of-age features into the world of adulthood with a pitch perfect examination of nuanced affection that turns to admiration that begets passionate lust with a daring contemporary feel to a period love story.
Set on an isolated island in Brittany in the end of the eighteenth century, Sciamma’s fourth feature follows Marianne, a young artist commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a woman without her knowledge.
Key to the success of “Portrait” is the relationship between model and artist, an examination of the soul that Sciamma deciphers as much as a mirror of self-reflection as a keen eye peering into the world of another.
The film lives and dies on the performances of its two leads and Noémie Merlant brings an effortless earnestness to Marianne that pairs perfectly with Adéle Haenel’s quiet intensity as Héloïse. Each moment in the film feels genuinely considered, not by the actresses portraying the characters, but by Marianne and Héloïse themselves.
Dialogue in a script can provide the context for someone being unable to say what they feel, but the right amount of hesitation or inflection in a voice can be just as breathtaking. Merlant and Haenel are masterful at pulling at the seams of Sciamma’s screenplay and digging beneath the surface of the script in a richly intimate, physical way that smolders in intensity without the two ever touching.
Framed together in a single shot along the cliffs of Brittany, the pair challenge each other with inquisitive, stolen glances that flicker like embers off the screen. “Portrait” captures intimacy as it grows and changes better than any romance film in a decade and the collaboration between actresses and filmmaker shimmers as viewers fall in love with Héloïse, then Marianne, and then both of them together and apart.
Their dynamic chemistry is offset slightly by the presence of a third major character in an otherwise sparsely cast film.
Typically in a film like this, Luàna Bajrami’s Sophie would be a distracting interloper character that pulls audiences away from the primary romance. But Bajrami matches both leads in quiet intensity with a stoic, yet emotional turn that enriches the world of the film and accentuates the progression of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship.
Sciamma expertly crafts art into the visual style of “Portrait,” building a world of undeniable cinematic moments that often feel like paintings stacked on top of one another to build a story.
So much of this artistry comes through in how the audience is introduced to Héloïse through Marianne’s lens as Sciamma takes viewers on an elaborate examination of Haenel, her hair, her earlobes, her piercing eyes. Every detail that Marianne paints into existence on canvas is masterfully imprinted into the hearts of engaged audience members with careful precision and expert cinematography from Claire Mathon.
The romance of the film comes not just from the brilliant chemistry Merlant and Haenel share on screen, but in the way it is portrayed through the camera lens with longing, lingering shots mixed with stolen glances that push the audience into the middle of a forbidden love affair.
The best French film in many years, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was eligible for awards season acclaim, usually playing as a de facto runner up to eventual Oscar Best Picture winner “Parasite” in international feature categories. Astoundingly, the French film community chose not to submit “Portrait” for major Academy Award consideration, opting for the political crime drama “Les Misérables,” which recently took home the country’s top film prize.
Emotionally stirring and wonderfully subdued, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a daring and expressive film that dazzles in its simplicity and feels of the moment in spite of its period setting.
Sciamma’s film is a must for cinephiles willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles and a thought-provoking drama that lingers long after the credits roll.