Elegant period pieces don't exactly have universal appeal. The extravagant settings and costumes, though dazzling, tend to create a cold and alienating atmosphere. On top of that, observing people so fundamentally removed from the way we live only compounds that sense of detachment, especially when filtered through a foreign language. It's difficult to overcome that distance and have an audience emotionally engage with the story you're trying to tell when it's shrouded by the unfamiliar. Céline Sciamma seamlessly bridges this gap with Portrait of a Lady on Fire by emphasizing the quietly intense relationship at its center and exercising a masterful formal restraint. It's not only one of the year's best films; it's one of the most exquisite romance films in recent memory.
The story is immediately absorbing. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who is to be married to a man in Milan. In an effort to protest this arranged marriage, Héloïse has refused to pose for previous painters, so Marianne has to work on her painting in secret, under the guise of being hired merely as a walking companion. This deceit plays less into the plot than expected; it sets up their relationship and informs the rest of the story, but Sciamma avoids using it as a cheap device to generate tension. From the moment she arrives on the isolated island, Marriane is drawn to Héloïse, but their relationship develops naturally, and Sciamma takes the time to let the romance to emerge organically.
On paper, it's a fairly standard story of burgeoning love, but Sciamma exercises a formal simplicity that perfectly underscores the central romance. Forgoing the typical orchestral score that can often overwhelm period pieces, Portrait is bathed in silence. This quiet atmosphere directs the audience's focus to small noises: the crackling of a fire, footsteps through a house, hushed breaths, etc. Sciamma trains the audience's attention to the subtle details which makes the intense moments more impactful; when we do eventually hear music, it's euphoric.
Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, photo by Claire Mathon, courtesy of Neon & Lilies Films
The visual style also favors subtlety. Sciamma and her cinematographer Claire Mathon (Stranger by the Lake, Staying Vertical) make each frame vibrant, dynamic, and bursting with color. The sharp compositions are breathtaking, but never gaudy or flashy. Grounding the cinematography and avoiding sweeping shots or grandiose camera movements preserves the film's delicate but modest sophistication. This elegant formal restraint perfectly suits the story, which is brought to life by Merlant and Haenel's incredible performances. The film lives in their expressive body language and facial expressions.
Most people probably won't share my minor reservations (e.g., a superfluous framing device, some obvious visual symbolism in the third act, a clumsy subplot involving the maid), so consider this an emphatic endorsement. The cinematography, direction, writing, and especially the central performances are all uniformly marvelous. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a remarkable, emotionally charged love story, washed in elegance and sophistication that's made with a distinct passion and genuine sincerity. The final shot is one of the greatest I've ever seen.