I’ve seen countless movies revolving around the concept and execution of love. Far from a foreign concept in film, most of these love stories get recycled over and over again, with different variations cropping up nearly every weekend with new releases. Streaming services come out with these romantic movies and series constantly. All of this makes the love story in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that much more striking and important.
Something incredible happens about midway through Céline Sciamma’s lesbian love story: you find yourself wholly invested in this relationship. It takes up the most important corner of your mind. Cinematographer Claire Mathon and Sciamma work together to create special moments through the use of camera movements and focuses. In each scene of dialogue, of action, or even of pure stillness, the camera keeps each woman as the center of attention.
Their faces fill the dead center of the screen, and instead of using over-the-shoulder shots and other usual devices, Mathon continues to put them front and center. Even when both women are on the screen, she keeps only one of them in view, leading to this absolutely breathtaking couple of seconds.
By doing this, Sciamma and Mathon don’t allow you to think about anything else in the film. You only consider the face on the screen, with the weight of each of their emotions. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel use subtle facial expressions to break your heart, put it back together again, and break it once again. The cinematographer remains utterly fantastic and unmatched, giving you reason to be attentive and hyper-focused. Portrait of a Lady on Fire never loses you, or allows you to leave its world, and for the overwhelming majority of the film, you’re more than happy to sit, walk, and paint with these women.
The love in Sciamma’s film feels real in its forbidden nature. The timing is off. The circumstances are less than ideal, to put it mildly. Her intent to tell a forbidden lesbian romance story deserves an amount of admiration and immense respect. It’s a period piece focusing on those largely ignored in period pieces: women and particularly lesbians. Though there were definite similar themes in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, that film dealt less with love and more with power and status. In Sciamma’s film, the opposite is true, flirting with the notions of status within the world of high art, but focusing on the power of love, not the power of the crown.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire affects you. It takes ahold of you (and your heart) and doesn’t let go for the 121-minute runtime. With outstanding performances and a sharp script, Sciamma’s film becomes a rare piece of cinema in your mind: one that pushes you to refocus your life, and your moviegoing experiences, around love. It plays out like a painting itself, slowly becoming more gorgeous and telling as time goes on.
This film is special. It puts your gaze directly on the beauty, the ugly, the fantasy, and the reality of love, with varying intersection layered beneath. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has power, weight, and importance, and for many, will be one of the best films of the year and an early contender for the best love story of 2020.