TL;DR – A beautiful yet deeply sad film that never quite escape its emotional weight
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Several films came out around Christmas that I wanted to see but I could not make it work because my new job didn’t start till the end of January. Well thankfully a lot of them are now making their way to video on demand (at a reasonable price unlike some other films) so I get to jump back in and fill in those gaps. The first film in that group is full of mood and tension and 18th century France.
So to set the scene, in the 18th century of the coast of Brittany, France a woman takes the long trip across the ocean in a rowboat. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter and has been hired The Countess (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting is to be sent as a part of Héloïse’s wedding present, an arranged marriage to a noble in Milan. However, there is a catch, because Héloïse sent the last portrait painter off in disperse with an unfinished work hanging in the house, Marianne has to paint Héloïse in secret without her knowing.
There are a lot of factors about the astounding film that make it interesting to watch and the first is the control over the camera revealing what you see. A good example of this is right at the start of the film where we first meet Héloïse. Before we met her, all we see a portrait missing a face immediately drawing you into what she looks like. Then we only see her from behind, then her face is obscured by a mask, all along you, like Marianne, want to know what is being hidden. Then Héloïse makes a run towards the cliffs, changing the entire feel of the scene in a moment, thanks to Sophie’s (Luàna Bajrami) warning. You sit there on the edge of your seat, then just as Héloïse comes to a halt and turns around we see her with the same relief as Marianne.
We also see that in the way that they capture the coastline in all its danger and all its beauty. It is harsh with its craggy lines and the film has made it sure that you know what is at stake. But is it is also full of swirling colours, the crash of the waves, and the beautiful setting sun. This is a film that celebrates the contrasts of light and dark as it emphasises more natural light options that give shape and contrast to the locations and the story. It also uses techniques to frame most of the nudity in a different way than you usually see playing on notions of nude v naked.
Another thing you will notice almost from the start is the lack of a musical score. At first, I thought this would be an issue for me because musical scores are one way that I connect with characters on an emotional level. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the opposite was indeed true. Because there is no score, it highlights all the other sounds in the movie. This makes every stroke of the paintbrush have more weight, every crackle of the flames as they lick against the wood creates a mood and a setting that few other things could accomplish.
However, for me, while this lack of music enraptured me from the start, there is a turning point where it loses its impact, but to explore that we need to look at an event that happens towards the end of the film, so there will be [SPOILERS] for the rest of the review. In the film, there is one moment where they use music (well there are two but we will get to that other moment) this is when the women make their way to bonfire gathering. It is here where the women start singing and it is one of the most evocative moments in the entire film, made all the more powerful for the most literal part of the title coming into being. It is here where we also get the one moment when the music slips from being non-diegetic to being completely diegetic. This is such a powerful moment in the film, but it also becomes its emotional peak and nothing after that moment has that same impact for me.
I think this is also combined with the knowledge that The Countess’ return is imminent and it all ends right there. This gives the end of the film this sense of coming doom that for me it never quite escaped. There is one final moment when it all comes together and that is in one of the last moments of the film where we slowly pan into Héloïse as a crescendo of Presto the apex of Vivaldi’s “Summer” Vivaldi’s is played by the orchestra below. It is a moment that reminded me of Call Me By Your Name, where we get a long moment to see the weight of emotion overcome someone and that was a gorgeously realised moment.
In the end, do we recommend Portrait of a Lady on Fire? Well if you are not comfortable about a romance between two women then no I would not recommend the film to you. However, if you are interested in a film that explores art, romance, and beauty, then this might be something that you would like to check out. If you liked this film, I would also recommend Call me by Your Name or God’s Own Country.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by – Céline Sciamma
Written by – Céline Sciamma
Music by – Jean-Baptiste de Laubier & Arthur Simonini
Cinematography by – Claire Mathon
Edited by – Julien Lacheray
Production/Distribution Companies – Lilies Films & Madman Films.
Starring – Julien Lacheray, Julien Lacheray, Luàna Bajrami & Valeria Golino
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R