Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire – ☆☆☆☆☆

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is a French historical romance in which a painter begins an affair with the aristocrat she is commissioned to paint. While the premise sounds simple, and even cliched, the film is anything but. What we see is a beautifully written, directed and acted film that draws the audience deeply into the story.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a wonderfully crafted work of cinema, and a moving feminist work that shines an overdue light on what it meant to be a woman in the 19th century. In the hands of another director, the fact that this is a love story between to women might have been handled in a sensationalised way, however Sciamma directs with intensity and care that serves to elevate the love story. Sciamma delivers a world that is real and immerses the audience in a way that few films manage to, particularly period films. I often struggle to enjoy period romances, but Portrait is one of the best I have seen. The reason being the performances of the two lead actresses.

The performances of Adèle Haenel as Héloïse and Noémie Merlant as Marianne are incredible. There is subtlety to their performances that leaves you feeling as though you are watching real people and not characters portrayed on the screen by actors. I found myself completely immersed in their performances, which is as high a compliment as I can give to any actor.

The cinematography is beautiful, and Claire Mathon richly deserves the multiple awards she has received for this film. The lighting is stunning and for a film about painting, there are multiple scenes that are framed like you might see in 19th century art from the likes of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. But what the cinematography delivers most, is an intensity and realism that elevates the already incredible performances captured by the camera.

A particularly moving element of the story is the parallels between the story of Héloïse and Marianne and that of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. I wouldn’t wish to spoil this too much, but suffice to say Sciamma succeeds in ensuring this parallel isn’t pretentious or forced.

Author: Grant McKenzie

Grant McKenzie is a freelance journalist, broadcaster and streamer. He is the founder of Cross/Rip. He works in radio and has written for Bella Caledonia, DC Thomson and Johnston Press in both news and sport. Grant has worked covering the SPFL, Solheim Cup and European Tour. He also streams regularly on Twitch talking about various issues including mental health. Grant is also a proud Dundonian studying a part time MA degree at the University of Dundee.

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