Ben Oliver

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?
29 January 2021

In 18th century France on a remote island in Brittany, a painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint an aristocratic young woman (Adèle Haenel). They grow closer together and begin a forbidden love affair.

All the trappings of your typical period drama are absent here. There’s no flashy sets and ensemble casts. No quirky sideshow characters for comic relief. There’s no lavish spending. There’s not even a score. It’s like coffee without milk or sugar, when it’s this good anything you add to it only makes it worse.

Sciamma speaks to the powerful and painful bond that develops between human beings. She speaks to the power of art, its ability to bring us together, to help us remember, to help us heal and to help us understand ourselves. We also see its ability to distort memories and sometimes become memory itself.

The two leads share an electric bond on screen. The warmth between the two characters is hypnotic and the range of emotions they go through seems to flow out of the screen. The sense that the end is coming for their relationship is woven into every move and it’s devastating.

This is all brought to life by astonishing photography that lives in perfect harmony with the script and the actors. It’s aloof and artful while somehow still inviting you in. There’s a clarity and purpose to every frame that is so rare to see.

Sensational. A brilliant artistic and technical achievement.

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