I won’t lie. Writing this review feels a little weird.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was scheduled to open at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center this Friday — until the theater closed temporarily due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. Yet, I saw the film at a press screening on Monday with two other people. So, when considering the film’s relevance to Lincoln residents and University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, this film exists in an odd state of limbo. It’ll likely open at the Ross at some point in the future, as those at the theater are working to reschedule the movie’s showings, but there’s no telling when that’ll be.
Despite this, here I am writing this review. My motivation is plain and simple: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is absolutely phenomenal.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a French film directed by Céline Sciamma. Set in the 18th century, it tells the story of a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who has been hired to paint a portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse isn’t very fond of being painted — or painters in general — and the last person hired to paint her ended up quitting before they were finished because they couldn't get Héloïse’s face quite right.
To combat this distaste for painters, Marianne doesn’t tell Héloïse she’s a painter. Marianne claims she is just visiting Héloïse’s home for a couple of weeks. In this short time, she studies and memorizes Héloïse’s face and stature in order to encapsulate it perfectly in her painting. During Marianne’s stay, the two women end up spending a lot of time together and getting to know one another very well. They learn each other’s secrets and desires and ultimately begin to fall in love.
Though the driving narrative of the film centers on Marianne’s painting of Héloïse, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is really about the relationship between these two people looking for their place in the world.
Both of these characters are incredibly dynamic. They each have immensely in-depth and well-realized personalities, motivations and struggles. Marianne is not very wealthy, but she gets by. She was in love once but has since moved on and, while she cares immensely about other people and their happiness, she finds herself frequently lonesome.
Héloïse, on the other hand, is wrapped in a veil of mystery. Neither the audience nor Marianne is ever quite sure of what she’s thinking or what she is going to do. Héloïse isn’t sure of what she wants in life, but as soon as Marianne enters her life, she begins to question what it means to be happy. While all of this is happening, her mother is making arrangements to wed her off to some rich man from Milan, entirely against Héloïse's wishes.
On its surface, not a lot happens in this film. Yet, in this simplicity, the film flourishes into an absolutely stunning experience. It delves into the relationship between these two protagonists and explores the elegant and fleeting nature of happiness.
The depiction of this relationship and its evolution is nothing short of poetic. The relationship is unbelievably realistic, and it’s apparent that the characters make each other legitimately happy, potentially for the first time in either of their lives. It's easy to form a genuine connection with these characters, which makes the inevitability of their separation all the more heartbreaking.
The performances from the two lead actresses are absolutely stellar. Both Merlant and Haenel portrayed the complexity of their characters with poise and precision. Every single movement, no matter how small, was subtly intentional. The tension between the two of them, built with actions as simple as a fleeting glance, was palpable. The characters didn’t feel like two actresses performing in a movie, they felt like real human beings.
Since "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" premiered in France in 2019 but didn't open in the United States until 2020, I'm unsure which best-of-the-year list it would belong on. Regardless, it undoubtedly earns its spot on either of them.
Because we should all be staying home right now, I won’t encourage seeing this movie in a theater at this point in time. However, if you get the opportunity to stream this movie at some point, do it. It’s an absolutely beautiful film that deserves to be seen.