'Portrait of A Lady on Fire' is a can’t-miss exploration of love and loss
When the Oscars announced their picks for Best Director prior to the 2020 Award’s show, and once again failed to include a single woman among its nominees the rightful and collected backlash, or perhaps at this point a rather long and exasperated audible sigh, was swift.
Focus immediately went to Greta Gerwig’sLittle Women which garnered six other nominations - including Best Picture - yet for some reason excluded Gerwig for her direction. This fact obviously and clearly pointed to the often absurd decision making of The Academy. For me however it wasn’t the most stinging tragic missed opportunity to highlight groundbreaking work of a woman for her direction - that was, and still is, Céline Sciamma’s snub for her absolute masterpiece Portrait Of A Lady On Fire across the board. One of the few films from last year that I think could have held its own in a merit-based competition against Bong Joon-ho’sParasitein any category.
Portrait of a Ladyon Fire is a simmering romance set in the bleakly gothic constraints of an isolated island in the west of France at the end of the 18th century. Noémie Merlant’s Marianne is tasked with covertly painting Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse. The goal of Héloïse’s family is to ship a portrait of their young daughter off to an eligible suitor who will take her hand in marriage, a process that Héloïse has thus far refused to take part in.
Adèle Haenel is of course not only a long-time artistic collaborator of Céline Sciamma but was her long-time romantic partner as well. The couple split amicably before the film began shooting and while it would be dangerous and flawed to diagnose, too-heavily, the impact their relationship had on Portrait of Lady on Fire, a testament to doomed love, it offers some explanation for how strikingly visceral that testament turns out to be.
Under Sciamma’s direction Merlant’s Marianne and Haenel’s Héloïse begin to slowly and brutally fall, entangled, into love. The film world cultivated by Sciamma is so precisely layered with tension that even the slightest of glances between the two characters feels seismic, any slight disconnect or fray between the two feels suffocating, and any single glancing touch has the potential to shatter the ground beneath your feet.
Many great films about love are great despite not being able to even half-way approach the level of intense raw chemistry that binds Haenel and Merlant. So for me Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the film, and Sciamma is the director, I’m most sad to see miss the opportunity of being showcased to a larger audience because through the still-too-important nod from The Academy. It’s only so often a film reaches the level of awe that Sciamma achieves in Portrait which makes it a must-see while you still can.
Portrait of A Lady On Fire is in limited release in Toronto, currently playing at The TIFF Bell Lightbox and Cineplex Varsity