By: Ryan Farrell, Staff Writer
While “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was originally released in Europe last year, it has finally started showing in the United States. This international hit was created by French director Céline Sciamma. While this film takes place in eighteenth-century France, its cinematography, acting, and artistic direction make it feel like a modern marvel. Every aspect builds off of the last, resulting in a well rounded yet complex piece of work.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” takes place in France in the late eighteenth century.
Marianne is commissioned to do a portrait of Héloïse in preparation for her arranged marriage. Héloïse is resistant to the idea of leaving her convent and marrying a Milanese stranger, as observed with the previous artist’s results. Marianne is then hired to accompany Héloïse during her walks for a point of reference. Instead of traditional posing, Marianne must paint the portrait in secret using only her memory. As the two women bond throughout the week, their resort serves as a constant reminder of Heloise’s impending fate.
The most impressive aspect of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is its stunning cinematography. Since the setting is on an island, there are a variety of setpieces to explore. Oftentimes, a character’s gaze will be the focal point of the shot, where their face and expression are responsible for emotion. The camera is generally still, allowing the frame to mock a canvas in of itself. A particularly unique aspect is when emotion is shown through Marianne’s brush strokes. The frame will completely consist of a painting, with only her wrist entering the frame. During a scene of dialogue, her brushstrokes may be more fast and sloppy in order to convey anger or frustration. This is even more impressive when her action doesn’t match her dialogue’s intent, subtly showing her inner feelings. This type of cinematic communication adds emotion in a simplistic yet effective manner.
The two lead actresses add another layer of complexity to the film. The chemistry between Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant’s is incredibly convincing, especially because it fluctuates and evolves constantly. This film is driven by its characters; a great amount of attention was put into their development. This is especially impressive since the actresses rely on body language for a majority of the time. There are often scenes that are dominated by long pauses in order to place the emphasis on the action. Merlant and Haenel flourish under this direction.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently showing at the Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland.