Like the very paintings featured in this movie, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a true work of art.
Noemie Merlant portrays Marianne in this film, a young woman who arrives in a secluded area of France to work on a portrait for a family. Marianne soon learns that a woman, (played by Valeria Golino and only known as The Countess), her employer, wants a portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel), who’s arranged to be married.
Heloise, though, has no interest in going through with the marriage and refuses to pose for a portrait. In an effort to connect with her, Marianne begins to take walks in the scenic coastal areas of France with Heloise and the two begin to connect. From there, the relationship only grows as the two understand each other more and a romance blossoms.
This movie is an amazing look at romance, and the connections humans can make even in a limited, short amount of time. Both lead characters in the movie are bound to something, with Marianne tied to her profession and Heloise roped into an arranged marriage. They both know their time together is short, which makes all of their moments together quite precious.
Admittedly, the movie does have a first act that moves just a touch too slowly. The whole movie is slow burn, but it’s more noticeable at the start. As the relationship between the leads advances, though, it becomes all the more compelling.
It’s not just their intimacy and chemistry building over the story that captures an audiences attention, though. As the film goes on, it also touches on issues such as gender roles, fear of the unknown in the future, and making the best of a fate that one didn’t choose.
The movie is also benefited by a sub plot with a third character. Sophie (Luana Bajrami) works as a caretaker for the house where Heloise lives, and she’s dealing with her own difficult situation. As the main characters interact with her and help her through, it adds another layer to the story.
The script is so powerful and charged with feeling. So many scenes showing the characters interact are incredibly heartfelt, and many pieces of dialogue are dripping with emotion.
Another aspect making a lot of this work on a high level is the cast. The acting, especially from the two lead performers, is extraordinarily good.
The main characters are somewhat opposite. Marianne, being a professional and strong in her craft, carries herself with a bit more confidence, but has some vulnerability underneath. Heloise, meanwhile, seems more reserved, but has a charm behind the persona she puts forward.
Merlant and Haenel nail this, and watching them convincingly portray the growth of their characters and the connection between the two is absolutely captivating to watch. Credit also has to go to Golino and Bajrami in the supporting cast.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” starts a bit slow, and there’s an aspect of one of the characters having a sort of ‘vision of the future’ that didn’t seem entirely necessary. However, this is still a powerful movie about desire, love and art. 4.8 out of 5.