Of the films that made the rounds on the 2019 festival circuit, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE stands apart from the crowd as a recipient of near-universal acclaim. The film has been adored by audiences and showered with praise, rightfully so. It is an arresting and significant piece of cinema that takes your breath away upon viewing and haunts your thoughts, like a beautiful specter, once the lights come up. 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE was written and directed by Céline Sciamma (Tomboy) and stars  Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. The film was most notably awarded the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay Award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, in addition to its nominations at Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, British Independent Film Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, and many more. Among critics, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE was a favorite garnering accolade from the Women Film Critics Circle, the Online Film Critics Society, and many other regional and national organizations. 

In PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, a young painter named Marianne is commissioned to complete the wedding portrait of a young woman named Héloïse. In the days that follow, the two women become closer and closer sharing the most intimate parts of themselves in these last moments of freedom before the impending wedding. 

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE | Image courtesy of IMDB

From the very first frames of the film, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE captures the viewer with its incredible beauty. Every shot is a work of art. The costuming is rich and enchanting. Even the film’s color palette, populated by all the shades of blue one could find in the sky and sea, has a gentle loveliness to it. 

Every moment of PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE feels like a gentle, soothing touch. Merlant and Haenel weave every aspect of their respective performances with that quiet, clandestine tenderness. As an audience member, it feels like you are happening upon a stolen kiss. There is such an intimacy in the film, that it feels voyeuristic to watch and yet simultaneously like you are being welcomed into these very private moments. This critic would struggle to list a film, in recent memory, that is so elegantly and beautifully assembled and executed.

Perhaps, a part of why PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE feels so especially intimate is that it peeks very honestly into the hidden world of women. Female relationships are at the very center of the film and we’re not just talking about a lesbian love affair. Yes, there is romance, but the film also connects with womanhood through the lens of female friendship, motherhood, women as healers and advisors, and the unique sense of community that women seem to only share with other women. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE explores every single one of these themes with a distinct feminine softness. 

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE | Image courtesy of IMDB

As the story of these young women unfolds, they find their voice and the ability to pursue love by also opening up as friends and being emboldened by other women around them. It is not by accident that marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and subsequent termination, and a gathering of women, raising their voices in song, all mark the events that open us up to the next chapter of this blooming romance. The love story of these two women is wrapped up in a love letter to all that is woman.

With respect to the queer relationship at the center of the film, it is a beautiful portrayal. The love affair of Marianne and Héloïse is blissfully absent of the male gaze. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE illustrates their forbidden love in a way that is sensual, but not hypersexed, celebratory of the female form, in a way that feels like it was created by and for a woman. The significance of this film as a piece of LGBTQIA representation cannot be understated. 

It is a rare and wonderful thing for a film like PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE to come along. It deserved all of the praise heaped upon it and more. Brava.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE will begin its wide release theatrical run on February 14, 2020.

Caitlin Kennedy
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