Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
Director: Céline Sciamma
Running Time: 121 mins
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a French film about a woman who is hired to paint a young heiress on an isolated island, but soon discovers the job will bring her far more than she expected on arrival.
An engrossing, emotional, sensual and very cagey drama from the outset, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire finds itself teetering on the brink of an all-out thrill ride, teasing you with its enigmatic drama, unexpected twists and deep emotion throughout. Not just an exciting watch, though, the film is a gorgeous feast for the eyes, with a powerfully tactile portrayal of its time period, set to a strikingly earthy backdrop in which a passionate and exhilarating slow-burn thriller bubbles patiently.
There’s a lot about Portrait Of A Lady On Fire that’s worth praise, but I think most of all, director Céline Sciamma deserves high commendation for her work on the film. Not simply because it’s such an exciting, engrossing watch, but because Sciamma takes on a story that’s been looked at before with both a strikingly frank and dynamic attitude, not becoming distracted by exterior influences, but simply doubling down on what is an enthralling story right the way throughout.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has drama and thrills throughout, but the core of its story remains a romance. And it’s a romance that’s at times reminiscent of films like Blue Is The Warmest Colour for its use of deeply sentimental and sensual style, as well as The Handmaiden for its on-edge brand of thriller brinkmanship.
However, unlike both of those films, which bring exterior concerns into the mix surrounding the nature of the core romance, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a bold, honest and brilliantly frank same-sex romance that shows there are absolutely no limits on the genre, playing out as a deeply passionate and pure romance that never gets bogged down with considerations of the scenario outside of the centre of the story.
With that, there are times when the film really hits home with deep emotional resonance, as the relationship between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel’s characters deepens over the course of a whirlwind few days.
And it’s that sense of a whirlwind romance that really makes Portrait Of A Lady On Fire what it is. I call it a cagey, on-edge thriller, but it’s actually the passion and intensity of the romance that makes the film so thrilling. There aren’t the complexity and twists of The Handmaiden, and while that may not necessarily be for the best, it definitely turns the film into one of the most striking and exciting romances you’ll ever see.
But what’s more is that, for the most part, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a very slow and quiet film. Once again, I keep calling the film an exhilarating thriller, but there’s nothing in the screenplay that would directly suggest it as such. Instead, it’s the brilliant work of director Céline Sciamma that lends the film such exciting intensity, and the dedication of the two lead performances to go as far with the portrayal of their deeply passionate romance as possible.
And finally, on top of that, as if the story wasn’t enough to have you totally hooked throughout, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire thrills with its gorgeous, vivid and down-to-earth period settting.
Not only does it feature strikingly plain, earthy costumes and sets that bring the reality of its time setting to light in far more vibrant fashion, but also the contrast between the dull, plain nature of that and the electrifying natural backdrops in which some of the characters’ most passionately romantic moments take place, which brings even more striking drama and excitement to the table, helping to build that sense of whirlwind excitement as the movie continues to develop into a more and more exciting thriller.
Overall, I loved Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. A slow-burn thriller that feels anything but, the movie is filled to the brim with exciting, vibrant and passionate drama, coming together under fantastic direction that blends a striking visual palette with deep emotional sentimentality, bringing a bold and frank attitude to its story that films in the past have unfortunately shied away from. It’s an exhilarating watch, and while it may not seem so on the face of things, there’s a whole lot to love about Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which is why I’m giving it an 8.0.