Céline Sciamma’s Oscar-nominated Portrait Of A Lady On Fire paints a bold and vivid picture of love, loss and longing in 18th century France.
When asked by a pupil about a portrait in her workshop, art teacher Marianne reminisces about the painting. A portrait of young woman called Heloise, due to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. Stuck together on an isolated island in Brittany, an attraction begins to form between the painter and her subject.
Writer-Director Sciamma (Girlhood) begins by lightly sketching the blossoming flirtation and attraction between the two women. A glance here, a look of longing there. Perhaps an adjustment during a sitting or the brush of a hand as delicate as paint on canvas. Actresses Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel then add the colour to bring the piece alive. Generating chemistry and heat that produce the sparks that stoke the passionate fire between the lovers.
The framing narrative hints at a doomed romance. Yet it is impossible to not find yourself drawn in to wishing for a different ending for these star-crossed lovers. As a result, the resolution of the multiple references to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is emotionally devastating.
It has many similarities with 2017’s breakout hit Call Me By Your Name. To the point this could have been titled Paint Me By Your Numbers. However Portrait is its own entity. Both are love stories but are different, to continue the art metaphors, as a Picasso is to a Monet.
Every artist begins with a blank canvas. It is what they do with it that defines them. With Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Céline Sciamma has painted her masterpiece.
Director: Celine Sciamma
Stars: Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Runtime: 119 minutes