Blu-ray Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, August 15th, 2020  

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jun 25, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Devoid of emotional context, Celine Sciamma’s 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire sounds like a parody of artsy French filmmaking. The story of a late 18th-century painter who falls in love with the young heiress she’s been hired to secretly enshrine on canvas, it ticks a lot of stereotypical boxes: forbidden love, elaborate period costumes, long stretches of smoldering silence. And yet Sciamma’s remarkable framing and pacing combined with two incredible performances from lead actors Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel make it one of the most electrifying romances of the last decade.

With only four major speaking parts - none male - and most of its scenes taking place in three locations - a sunlit drawing room, a cavernous basement kitchen and a lonely, wind-swept beach - it’s tempting to say that Portrait of a Lady on Fire evokes the stripped down simplicity of a stage play. But the film’s intimacy is unique to the medium of film, the unspoken longing and deft, subtle emotional turns expressed in close-up and reverse shots forming the rhythmic heart of the story. The hushed quiet of the film allows Sciamma to use the smallest sounds to give texture to the film’s world. The footfalls of boots on hardwood floors, the sigh of shuffling papers, the soft scrape of a pencil. This precise attention to quiet and the absence of a score allows for two of the most powerful scenes in the film, where diegetic music overwhelms the viewer with the emotional state of the characters.

Much of the film is a two hander between between the leads and comprises one of the most compelling and tenderly felt romances in years. Sciamma’s scripts creates a fascinating dichotomy between the two characters, allowing the actors to build genuine personality and nuance with each look and action. As the painter Marianne, Merlant has an earthy worldliness that resides in the paint that stains her hands and the quiet competence with which she goes about physical tasks that would have been considered unfeminine in the 1700s. Despite her bodily confidence, Merlant uses every inch of her face to convey Marianne’s uncertainty and need for self-control. Contrast this with Haenel as Heloise, sheltered and self-conscious about it, but with an emotional intelligence and sense of quiet self-assurance that makes her brave in ways that Marianne could never be.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of Portrait of a Lady on Fire includes conversations with the writer/director and lead actors, as well as interviews with cinematographer Claire Mathon - who deserves an enormous amount of credit for the films’ naturalistic yet painterly visual palette - and Helene Delmaire, who created the paintings featured in the film. It’s rare for a work of art to be so visually captivating while also being so emotionally affecting. It speaks of something profoundly old in a way that makes it feel completely new.



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