carson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Romance is a genre that I find very difficult to get into because of its often glaring cheesiness and reliance on emotion to carry the story. While I can usually enjoy romantic films for what they are, there has yet to be one that physically and emotionally moved me until now. Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire might just well be the greatest film about romance and desire ever made. This absolute masterclass in filmmaking shows how even in the most unexpected places, honest love will always prevail and along with the help of Sciamma's wonderful and heartfelt direction, this theme is portrayed excellently. The performances from both of these leads are simply some of the best acting I have ever seen, both verbal and nonverbal, and the stunning way that this film is shot and edited makes for such a powerfully moving experience. I can absolutely understand the hype behind this film now but even then, my expectations were blown out of the water. This has easily become one of my new favorite films and I was just astonished watching this film from the very first frame.
On an isolated island in the 18th century, artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is set to be married but refuses to pose for the artist. Héloïse's mother (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to pretend to be her friend and paint in secret but as the two women become closer and spend more time together, they form an undeniable bond that proves to know no bounds. This film, both written and directed by the wonderful Céline Sciamma, has one the most genuine, funny, and lovely scripts to ever take place on the screen. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most beautiful and authentic love story I have ever seen and it is told with Sciamma's impeccable direction. The flawless flow from one scene to the next felt so unbelievably natural and this story moves along with gorgeous pacing. The profound emotion that I also felt from Sciamma's storytelling is astounding and the range of her script covers just about every base that an audience member could hope to cover. There is such a beautiful and timeless blend of comedy, romance, and emotional suspense that kept me on the edge of my seat. I always know that I'm watching something special when a film is able to make me feel butterflies in my stomach and smile like a fool and Sciamma accomplished just that. The undeniably relatable way that Sciamma writes these two women as they fall in love is mesmerizing and she is able to make this story feel universal. Desire is one of the most prominent themes throughout this film and while it is shown through just a breath of air or unspoken touch, I was left feeling weightless after the passion these characters went through. This is not only my new favorite romance film but one of the best films of this past decade without argument.
Love is often more nonverbal than anything and this film is a masterclass in proving just that. Both of the roles from Merlant and Haenel are easily some of the most believable performances I have ever seen and the love that Marianne and Héloïse discover with each other is portrayed excellently by these two. Their chemistry together is palpable and Sciamma writes these characters with such poise. What I loved most, however, was how nonverbal so many of their actions were. There is so much tension and desire teeming in this film in just the subtle motions or glances that these two give each other, even when not looking. The nonverbal communication between the two is just as, if not more, powerful than when they are actually speaking and I can almost not even put into words how well the bond between them works. Sciamma's sharp script and clever interactions between these characters only add to how lovable they are and this only goes to prove how phenomenal of performers Merlant and Haenel are. They infuse every scene with a grace that will quite literally take one's breath away. This is all underscored by the lack of score and the audio experience that this film provides is nothing short of magnificent. There is practically no score, save for one critical scene towards the end of the second act, but this choice literally leaves the audience in a trance as they gravitate towards the turn of a head or stroke of a brush. It would be a bit degrading to compare this film to something like ASMR but the way Sciamma crafts her auditory storytelling had such a keen effect on me.
Sciamma's love story was made even more gorgeous, however, due to the jaw-dropping cinematography from Claire Mathon and her use of colors. This remote island is shot in such a way that makes it seem endlessly expansive, yet still remains true to telling of the romance between these women. In the most personal scenes, the way that she centers the camera on Marianne and Héloïse to really hone in on their physical reactions between them drew me in so well and the long, lasting takes edited by Julien Lacheray help to really fuel this emotion. The gorgeous hues during the windy days and the lightly saturated touch in the darkest of scenes make this film feel so warm and inviting. Every frame of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is shot with perfection and the masterful way that Mathon composes these women in the limited locations never ceases to be fascinating. I also adored the period-accurate costuming and the inclusion of French culture in this story. The late 18th century might seem like a long time ago, but the modern take that Sciamma writes for these women gives them so much agency over themselves while still being able to fall in love with one another. Production and costume design were also a huge part of selling the atmosphere of this film and it only helped the overall visual experience. It is not a difficult task to fall in love with this entire story and Sciamma makes sure that her film is the vehicle to do so.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of those utterly rare films that audiences will be thinking about for very long after they view it. I know I am, as Sciamma has created a story that is nothing short of a masterpiece and one that provides everything I aspire to create in my life. Crafting such a delicate and wonderful movie like this one takes so much obvious, tender passion and Sciamma's storytelling abilities and direction throughout this movie are unmatched. I could only dream of making something that moves people this physically, but thankfully we live in a time where we get the privilege of experiencing this once-in-a-lifetime film.