It may have been muscled out of awards season by Parasite, but urgently add Portrait Of A Lady On Fire to your to-watch list.
Céline Sciamma’s captivating Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is more than just an intoxicating and poetic story of a blossoming queer romance; it is a tale that beautifully illustrates women’s silent protest against the expectations of society and the subtle yet undeniable power of the female gaze. With exceptional performances from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, and the stunning cinematography of Claire Mathon, each scene feels like a brushstroke of a masterpiece as a story of the impossible love affair meticulously unfolds.
Set in 18th century Brittany, France, Marianne (Merlant) voyages over to the coastal region as she has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Haenel). Héloïse is set to be married to an unknown wealthy Milanese gentleman who wishes to see her portrait before their nuptials. However, Héloïse is not to know that she is the subject of the painting. Time passes without audience or characters noticing, and the tension and distrust slowly dissolves, their friendship giving way to their desires: from divinely sexual intimate moments to gutwrenching pangs of what cannot be. Transitions are carried by glances between the two women, lips gently parting as they share whispers of graceful flirtations. The misconception around the female gaze is based upon assumptions that it relates to the male gaze’s observation of women in film, but it is far from that. The empathy and intimacy of the female gaze is unwaveringly powerful, and most of all in Portrait: defiant and feminine.
The story is tender in its depiction of their infatuation, from their physical tactility to moments of hesitant desire emerging from them, both painfully aware of their romance’s illegality. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire will sit with you long after the film has ended, with the framing and score of the last scene edging you towards the tip of your chair, gripping onto your last intake of breath until the final note. The concept of the film is beautifully devastating and entirely compassionate towards the inseparable bond of devotion and pain. The pastel hues of each shot are unforgettable, and the composition of scenes never once objectifies the women of the film, but places them in modes of power and awe. It will leave you pleading for the impossible, frustrated at the inevitable and yet still optimistic that even for the briefest of moments, our allegiance to the clutch of love’s enchantment is fated.
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