Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…

πŸ”₯"Don't regret. Remember."πŸ”₯

Romance, passion, feminine intrigue. In a world where women continue to be marginalized despite tremendous gains and triumphs, it takes a film about an aristocrat and the artist commissioned to paint her to encapsulate the truly unknowable machinations of love and desire. Portrait de la jeune fille en feu ["Portrait of a Lady on Fire"] is CΓ©line Sciamma's urgent cry of feminist representation in a dreamlike utopia of nearly a quarter millennium ago. It's pure cinematic perfection. It's breathtakingly beautiful. It's a work of art.

A young French painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is asked by her female students about one of her works. We are taken back a few years -- pre-revolution late-18th Century -- to an unknown island in Brittany, when she was asked to paint the portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is engaged to be married to a nobleman of Milan. She arrives by boat, and meets the servant girl Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) who tells her about the house, the lady, and puzzlingly about the man who tried to paint her but failed. She doesn't know why. Mother of the mysterious lady and Countess (Valeria Golino) gives slightly more information, that Héloïse simply refused to ever sit for a portrait, and he nor anyone else was never able to paint her face. She does not wish to be married, and in her protestations she also will not allow any painting of her to be done. The Countess tells Marianne that indeed she must, but secretly: hired ostensibly as a companion for walks on the windswept cliffs and beaches, she will have to study this strikingly beautiful artistic subject in order to make her portrait. In short order, the two women grow ever closer, and as Héloïse discovers Marianne's real motive, a burgeoning forbidden affair commences.

"In solitude I felt the liberty you spoke of," HΓ©loΓ―se tells Marianne. "But I also felt your absence." This moment, before the two lead characters have ever even touched one another, is when audiences know everything will change. Though, it will take time. What follows is a slow-burning intensity unlike any film this year, not one of traditional suspense or melodrama, but one of pure unbridled cascading passion. Each woman is lit aflame, despite the outside world and the impossibility of this tryst ever lasting or earning recognition. On this island, free from the Western patriarchy and male gaze -- the boat trip with Frenchmen rowing oars is literally the last we ever see of this gender -- we bear witness to what must seem like a house of dreamlike solidarity.

In this safe space of sorts, the three young women (Sophie as well) take refuge from the world. And how do they spend their time, aside from the task at hand? They share the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Keep that in mind, this tale of glances and the lover's choice versus the poet's, as it will unfold through the film between Marianne and HΓ©loΓ―se. It's all part of a Cannes-winning screenplay by Sciamma that is as intricate as it is philosophical. Claire Mathon's confidently vivid cinematography only enhances the captivating story.

Despite many great films this year, I haven't felt many moments of spine-tingling heart-stopping adoration. However, Portrait of a Lady on Fire features two of those moments. One, a circle of women rising in song around an outdoor flame, chanting in harmonic Latin "fugere non possum" -- "we cannot escape," naturally -- as Marianne and HΓ©loΓ―se share a smile. The second is a finale so utterly perfect that I cannot imagine a single alteration upon it.

I praised Ladj Ly's Les MisΓ©rables as France's Oscar selection this year. That's a great film I hope you get to see; it'll be in my favorites of 2019. But it's no Portrait of a Lady on Fire, CΓ©line Sciamma's work that is so unquestionably magnificent and filled with burning concupiscence clashing with fiery ardor. It's a flame I can't imagine ever wanting to extinguish.

Mon dieu.

Added to The Best Narrative Films of 2019.
Added to My Best Reviews of 2019.
Added to 2020 Independent Spirit Awards nominees, ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to CΓ©line Sciamma ranked.

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