PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE gets 8/10 Heartburn

Directed by Céline Sciamma

Starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami


The metaphor of ‘burning’ to describe the intense desire created by love can seem hokey, and yet its usages in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are somehow able to avoid cliché. Moments like the one that refers to the title (and can be seen on the film’s poster) convey images that will simply, yet effectively, pierce your mind and heart for quite a time to come.

This is one of the best and most authentic love stories of the year. Beginning from the end, with Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) titular portrait, this opening suggests character decisions that may ultimately defy the audiences’ expectations. She arrives on an island in France, easel under her arms, as she is commissioned to paint a (reluctant) bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) – but she refuses to pose, forcing Marianne to discreetly paint her, remembering her details as they spend time together.

As the both of them stall and put off the upcoming wedding and their inevitable separation, a romance gradually and naturally evolves. The precise pacing of this growing love is always consistent, slow enough to entice the audience little by little into introducing this Héloïse character and then her burgeoning relationship, though not slow enough to make the process seem elongated.

This romance sure is as intense as a raging fire, though given how much the film relies on it, this tale here may seem very small and simple, a depiction of a forceful, but brief fling. There is also the third wheel to the pair, the housekeeper Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), whose own predicament adds to this womanly group dynamic, but adds little to how it affects the romance at the centre.

It’s this romance that makes the film seem so attentive to the little and big gestures that establish the passion between these two women. Most of the film’s imagery is beautifully naturalistic, yet also barren, with bare walls, rocky beaches, and the lifeless outside area, with only close-up shots adding a liveliness to the suffocating environment surrounding these women, whether it’s of their faces or of the colourful and textured strokes of the paintings.

All leading up to an overwhelming final shot, that really caps off the powerful acting between these two, this is one of the more intelligently plotted depictions of love that considerately handles each of its developments without breaking or shattering the film’s glass-like brittleness. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been created with such devoted care to its acting, character progression, dialogue, and cinematography, it’ll make you fall in love with its filmmaking as much as this couple do with each other.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire plays at UWA Somerville from Monday, December 9 – Sunday, December 15, 8pm.

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