If you're someone who loves film, walking into a cinema is a moment electric with possibility. Mostly you're probably going to see something watchable, occasionally something terrible, possibly something great. However, you know that there's also that rarest of possibilities that you're going to see something special - something that you'll never be able to forget, something that might change you completely. You live for that possibility, for the slim chance that the person you were as you walked in will not be the same person as you walk out. Those kinds of films are rare, and come along so infrequently that, when they do, you want to stand and cheer and hug the person next to you and share in the joy of having seen something extraordinary. That is how I felt at the end of writer and director Céline Sciamma's 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'. I wanted to run through the streets and tell any random person I could find about it. I wanted to fall into a heap and lie there, crying and grinning with happiness. I wanted to turn around, sit back in my seat and watch it all over again.
In 18th century France, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, 'BPM') which is to be sent to her future husband. In order to do so, Marianne must come and stay at the island home of Héloïse and her mother (Valeria Golino, 'Rain Man'). The only problem is, Héloïse refuses to sit for the portrait in protest of the marriage. Instead, Marianne must pose as a new walking companion for Héloïse, and surreptitiously observe her for the portrait. As the two young women grow closer though, their relationship becomes an affair of breathtaking intensity.
It feels almost futile trying to describe 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' in words. Cinema is an art form that, when at its best, defies any kind of description. It becomes a sensory, emotional, tactile experience, where the complexity of human experience and relationships are elevated to great heights and digs deep into the very depths of your soul. You can't put it into words because it is beyond words, beyond description. Great cinema is something you feel. And 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' is great, great cinema. It's almost impossible to break it down into its many elements and examine them because each and every one is essentially perfect, and when placed together as a whole, strikes the kind of harmony you long for. There were moments in this film so sublime, so exhilarating, so overwhelming that I had no choice but to sit there, eyes wide, mouth agape, breath held, tears streaming down my face, stunned into submission by the awe and perfection of it all.
What Sciamma is able to express about the language of love and desire in this film is miraculous, all the more so for how completely it represents and celebrates the female perspective. Everything that cinema is and can be is at her service and under her complete control, as if the natural elements themselves were at her bidding. The film unfolds with the scope and richness of an 18th-century French novel, less concerned with narrative than the deep inner lives of its characters. Both Marianne and Héloïse are complete creations from the minute they appear on screen, so all the film need do is place them together within the parameters of this island and let nature take its course. Sciamma carefully charts Marianne's discovery of Héloïse, delaying and teasing her appearance with the skill of a great thriller, so by the time we finally see her, both the audience and Marianne are on the edge of our seats. Sciamma revels in the act of observing, of seeing and being seen, the intimacy and intensity of it, the way it engages the senses and pummels the walls of defence. Marianne has a clarity of focus and a resilience, built from being a single woman engaging in an artistic field where her gender will prevent her from ever being taken seriously, while Héloïse is a creature of anger and defiance, rallying against the injustice of her situation and her fury at being denied her ability to be as she wishes to be. They are two women desperate to be seen as they are, to be looked at with appreciation and admiration and love, and in finding that from one another, allowing themselves to not only see but be seen, they find the completeness of great beauty, great violence and great passion.
Very few films have ever captured longing and desire as potently as 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire', and even fewer through the eyes and lens of women. It feels revelatory, as if you are seeing something you've never seen before, a depiction of female desire intensely passionate and emotionally unrestrained. It is a celebration, not just of the female form and of female desire, but of the right of a woman to choose, to have ownership of her body and all its functions, of who she chooses to share it with and how she sees herself. The male gaze is banished from this film, and you revel in the glory of its absence.
Very few films have ever captured longing and desire as potently as 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire', and even fewer through the eyes and lens of women.
'Portrait' somehow manages to be both precise and spontaneous, classical and modern, epic and shockingly intimate, grounded so perfectly in its period and somehow intensely immediate. The aesthetic control with which Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon craft the visual language of the film is extraordinary, marrying the sensibility of classical 18th-century art with the wild unpredictability of the natural world. It's a control of image akin to Alfonso Cuaron's in 'Roma', and just as overwhelming. Thomas Grézaud and Dorothée Guiraud perfectly recreate the period, but it is a world where people have lived and continue to live. It is a here and now, a world that breathes and moves and sighs. Sciamma brings all the elements of the film together in total service of the story she needs to tell, and she understands how to craft each and every one for the maximum effect. By the end of the film, I was giddy from the surprise of her choices, each one as thunderously remarkable as the last.
As Marianne, Noémie Merlant gives an astounding performance, charting her journey from resilience to submission. You can see the determination not just in her eyes built from years of dismissal, but in her every muscle is the desire to create. When her defences are broken through, her vulnerability tumbles out, and her confusion and pain and longing enrich and elevate her performance to greatness. Adèle Haenel is likewise incredible as Héloïse, a powerhouse of defiant anger and self-defence, the beguiling mystery at the heart of Marianne's obsession who becomes the tower of strength at the heart of the film. Her entire physical form is at odds with everything around her, and Golino's performance shimmers with danger and unpredictability. Together, they create an intense and passionate love affair for the ages, and Sciamma revels in every detail she can capture. Completing the central unit of the film is the radiant Luàna Bajrami as Héloïse's servant Sophie who, under the guidance of Marianne and Héloïse, begins her own journey of self-discovery, her own movement towards embracing her womanhood and ownership of her own body. The relationship between the three women culminates in an extraordinary sequence that refrains and reclaims a woman's right to her own body.
As the credits began to roll on 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire', I was practically incapable of moving or speaking. Every time I didn't think the film could possibly get any better, Céline Sciamma elevated it to even greater, more incomprehensible heights, culminating in one of the most extraordinary moments in 21st-century cinema. This is a rare and precious film, breathtaking in its craft and intensely honest in its passions. This is a film that aches, that longs, that dances in ecstasy and raises its hands to the sky, angelic and ferocious and perfect. Simply put, 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' is a masterpiece, and one of the best films of this or any year.