NOTE: Some mild spoilers.
There is no music score in Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but halfway through, during a visit to a bonfire, a group of women start singing, beginning with a low hum that slowly fills the soundtrack. It is the most electrifying moment any recently released film has managed to produce.
Being electrifying comes so naturally to Sciamma’s film, and yet even as subtle as it is, its two-hour run time may very well be one of the most overwhelming emotional experiences dealt by a piece of filmmaking in a long time. From its magnificent sense of subtly portrayed emotion to Claire Mathon’s gorgeous photography, particularly the manner it captures those cliff faces and crashing blue waves, Portrait is as gorgeous a cinematic experience in recent memory.
It is a film filled with longing glances that go on that little bit longer than any other director would hold for, and it becomes before your eyes one of the most intense and devastating portrayals of romance and love ever produced.
The film never manipulates its audience with its story telling, but instead lets the relationship between Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and Heloise (Adele Haenel) play out in a slow, intoxicating build.
Suspense is built into the narrative as Marianne is asked to paint Heloise’s portrait without the latter knowing, but even when it hits the obvious narrative point of having Heloise find out, it never plays the drama obviously, or aims for the type of angst you’d expect.
What’s even better is just how purely feminine a film Portrait is. Men account for very little of the screen time, barely rising above the level of being extras, and instead commits fully to a story that is driven by female interests, desire and love.
It’s one of those films that gets under your pores almost; watching it for the first time is a near overwhelming emotional experience, particularly that final scene, but then you find yourself unable to forget about what you watched, those private moments between the characters replaying themselves in your head, how its time and setting means these two women cannot be together, and how heteronormative standards probably brought to an end so many relationships between women during time periods like this one.
Remarkably, the film never becomes overbearing with a sense of tragedy and even allows itself to have moments of fun and levity; the entire middle section of the film when Marianne and Heloise are alone in the latter’s home with only the maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) for company, comes with moments of gentle good natured humour and such a lovely portrayal of female friendship that you almost wish that you could spend an entire separate film with the three of them as they go about their lives in the house, spending their evenings reading and debating Orpheus and Eurydice.
It builds to a suitably emotional finish, the likes of which is kind of inevitable in a film like this. There is a sense of tragedy, but never of the obvious kind. The tragedy is the sense of loss, but while society may dictate that this type of love can never be, you can never change how someone feels.
The use of a book page at a particular number is a lovely visual touch that might have been a powerful enough note to leave the film on, but the final scene itself is a musical jolt of energy that fires your soul and cannot help but almost have you crying as one character on screen does the same.
It’s cinema in its purest, most brilliant form and it will stay in your mind for a long time after watching.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available to watch now on Mubi.