WHAT I LIKED: Céline Sciamma's 'Portait of a Lady on Fire,' is one of the most deeply cinematic films I've ever seen. In saying that, I'm not talking about the breathtaking, sweeping, portrait-like beauty of each perfectly-lit frame; nor am I referring to the crisp, all-consuming sound-design that highlights every gust of wind, creaking floorboard or crashing wave. I'm talking instead about the fact that Sciamma executes almost every job through tools other than dialogue - where so much is said by what's not said - and what that enables is a slowly unraveling and deeply profound emotional experience that I would most definitely call a masterpiece.
Firstly, the mechanics of the story are always revealed to the audience without anyone on screen spelling things out. We meet a painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) seemingly haunted by a dark, mysterious work of hers that one of her students has dug out of storage, and after zooming in on it, we apparently flash back and see her arrive by boat to a strange, empty house. It's not until a good fifteen minutes have passed that you get a clue why she's even there, but you're utterly hooked figuring it out. The film takes this approach to every single narrative turn it makes, but more importantly than that, it also builds and plays with its characters visually by showing them react to things before the audience, and expressing their feelings simply through bodily and facial expressions which the camera zooms in and lingers on for very exposing lengths of time so that you're left feeling and reeling over every detail.
For example, when Marianne's enigmatic subject Heloise (Adele Haenel) is finally revealed, we see her slowly uncovered from the back of a cloaked head whilst Marianne runs after her; and when the two sit together on the beach, their exchanges are largely made by simple glances between them.
The film utilises this kind of minimalism throughout, and whilst that all has the affect of keeping your eyes firmly fixed to the screen and hanging on every move; it also works perfectly with the narrative as that soon involves Marianne unpicking and understanding Heloise in order to paint her on the sly. We're effectively left working to do the same, and it slowly becomes apparent through their almost wordless interactions that Heloise is set to enter into an arranged marriage in the coming days which has left her deeply unhappy. Her cold facade slowly drops, and Marianne paints her firstly along the wishes of her mother; capturing in the moment feelings and sparks. A climatic moment however leads Heloise to open up to the fact that there are emotions that run deeper and more permanently than those captured in a traditional painting, and Marianne ultimately accepts what she's known all along and invests in the notion of delving into Heloise's true self rather than her facade.
That's ultimately the thematic core of the film - whether surface joy and observation can make up for real, permanent feeling if it has to - and whilst that's epitomised by a disscussion of Orpheus and Eurydice, it's the characters coming to indulge in those questions with each other that deepens their relationship. The friendship and chemistry between the two of them is utterly magnetic, and again because the film mostly leaves the development to the camera, you get a much more natural sense of their growing understanding and enfatuation. In the end, without wishing to spoil, the result is one of the most brilliant pictures of impassioned love, affection and lust ever put to screen, and it puts to mind Pawel Pawlikowski's wildly different but equally powerful 'Cold War.'
All of that brilliance here is only enabled though by the two spectacularly nuanced performances that these certainly are. Merlant lends a brilliantly defiant, life-filled presence to Marianne that incessantly - though delicately - picks away at Heloise's layers, whilst Haenel is heartbreakingly distant and sad, and yet increasingly warm as her character is exposed. The fact they go on such a beautiful journey of connection together also of course makes the seemingly inevitable conclusion that comes with Heloise's situation all the more tragic, and the isolation of the house and surrounding cliffs which Sciamma paints creates an even more ethereal, tortured, man-free paradise that you long to remain.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: I really can't fault this film... I just need to see it in a cinema.
VERDICT: An utter masterpiece that has its central characters unravel and entwine with each other in an ethereal land of tragic impermanence, Céline Sciamma's 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire's magnetic cinematic minimalism will have you hooked and emotionally invested throughout. This truly is one of the best films of recent years.