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Film Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020) is a French drama highlighting the LGBTQ+ community and is the winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes 2019. Directed by Céline Sciamma, this film stars Noémie Merlant, Adèle Hanael and Luàna Bajrami. When painter Marianne (Merlant) is asked to secretly paint Héloïse (Hanael) in order to send her portrait to her future husband in Milan, she soon realises that it will be much harder than it appears to do so.

There are only a few key characters in this film, mainly the roles of Marianne, Héloïse and housemaid Sophie (played by Bajrami). However, having so few characters be central to the story allows for the film to focus on character development, making the relationships they all develop feel incredibly real. The performances add to the writing of the characters, as these are some of the best performances I have seen in the past year. All three ladies vanish completely into their role and give incredibly complex performances that look seamless and stunning on the big screen.

The simple storyline of painting a portrait secretly lends itself to some great moments, particularly in terms of character development as Marianne tries to study and memorise the features of Héloïse. This storyline is also a great set up for the romance that blossoms in this film, as the film is given plenty of time to develop the love interest and watch a simple job turn into a lot more in the space of two hours. The simple presentation of the film could have come off as boring if the characters weren’t engaging, however I was mesmerised for the entire runtime because of how great the execution is.

There is a secondary subplot in the film regarding Sophie that focuses on her struggles dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Not only is this effective in highlighting another major issue that women have to go through even in this day and age, but it was done so well. It was a storyline that helped connect the three main characters together naturally, and also wasn’t overshadowing the main storyline of Marianne and Héloïse. I completely bought into the storyline and some of the imagery that was used during these sequences were haunting yet also subtle and beautiful.

This film has the best cinematography in years. It was shot directly onto 8K to keep as much colour as possible and it certainly made a difference here. The contrast between dark and light could have been jarring, but it is edited so smoothly and works perfectly. There is not one shot that I simply wouldn’t want as a piece of artwork on my wall, that is how beautiful this film is. The film is also edited beautifully to support this, the cuts well placed and the pacing being absolutely superb. It is the editing that supports the female gaze of this film, as it times how long to keep shots of Héloïse and Marianne gazing into each other, creating love but also tension where I didn’t expect it to. For exactly two hours for a simple film like this, I would still not cut a second of it.

The film comes to life due to the cinematography, but it still has to capture beauty to look this good. The production and costume design in this film help bring the characters and story to life, all beautifully done to help set the tone of the film. The costumes are all so bright and gorgeous to look at, I wish I could own their wardrobes. The production design transitions well from inside the house, which is grand yet also feels small and claustrophobic at times, to the island which feels large but also isolated with only these three small figures filling it out. It helps add drama to the film, a sense of isolation and privacy for these characters to have.

There are many different sequences that involve art, from paintings shown to the creation of the portrait. There are close-up shots of paint being applied which is so satisfying to me, somebody who nearly studied art at university at one point. The art sequences accentuate how beautiful this entire film is as if every frame is a piece of artwork in itself. I also love that the film opens up with a painting that Marianne did, and yet we never see her paint it. We don’t have to see her paint it if we see the moment happening itself, keeping some parts of Marianne and Héloïse’s moments and adoration private from the audience.

I could go on and on about this film. This is simply the most gorgeous film I have probably seen in years, and it doesn’t need to simply rely on its cinematography to be a great film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is packed with so much care and love for the characters and subject matter that it leaps straight off the screen. From the strong exposition at the start to the beautiful final moments of the film, it will leave you breathless throughout. Please, go and see this film at a cinema if you can. This is the type of film that needs and deserves support.


Have you had a chance to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire yet? Did it impact you as heavily as it did for me? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.

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