Written & Directed by Celine Sciamma
As was proven this year at the Academy Awards, foreign language (non-English) films can be truly great and life-changing, life-affirming, etc, just as any other Hollywood production. With the success of Parasite at the 2019 Academy Awards, I hope that the future of cinema is bright, as I have been enjoying foreign language films for many years. There is a treasure trove of stories out there. In fact, Parasite was my #1 movie for 2019, so I was very happy about that. So amazing then that my #2 film was also a foreign language film. This one: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Two incredible films from two different sides of the world (France and Korea), but both equally remarkable films worth seeing for anyone interested in entertainment and cinema in general. The world has many stories to tell. Maybe with these two films landing in 2019, we will see more and more mainstream success for foreign language films in the future.
Of course, Portrait of a Lady on Fire hasn’t had the mainstream success of Parasite, yet. It likely won’t either because it is a very different kind of film. Quieter, more reflective, more subtle. Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is an artist who have been hired to paint a portrait of a lady, Heloise (Adele Haenel) to be married off to an Italian man she’s never met. However, Heloise refuses to pose, so her mother brings Marianne in to be her “companion”, painting her from memory and keeping her true purpose secret from Heloise. When the mother leaves to set the marriage in Italy, Heloise and Marianne are kept company only by the maid, and in the mother’s absence, they are able grow their relationship into an intense and furious love affair, setting both their passions afire and changing their lives forever.
Admittedly, I watched this at home during a flourish of awards screeners at the end of the year. Usually, this is a formula for me not being swept up as much as I would if I were confined to a theater with huge screen, theater sound, and lack of distraction. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I was fully immersed the entire time, which is a truly rare and incredible experience for me. Filmmaker Celine Sciamma has meticulously crafted a story which speaks volumes, while pairing it was a composition that is truly beautiful and involving. On top of the cinematic acumen on display from Sciamma, the two lead performances from Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel are Great, with a capital “G”. Their treatment of this story, and connection on screen is everything.
Sciamma slowly builds this narrative, displaying incredible patience and confidence in the payoffs to come. Notably, we, like the character of Marianne, spend plenty of time before we see Heloise’s face. She is hidden, restrained from human interaction as she awaits her planned, unwanted marriage. The reveal is all the more impressive and impactful because of it. And after spending the time to build the relationship between these two women, we also get a tremendous payoff in the last shot of the movie, which is as moving and emotionally wrecking as anything I saw all year. A truly memorable moment from a film that will stick with me, probably forever. This is an image that will be impossible to forget.
For as quiet and slow as Portrait of a Lady on Fire may seem to the casual viewer, I would describe it as electric. I was genuinely shocked to see how enveloped and transfixed I was in this film, leaning slightly forward in my seat as I let the beautiful, heart-breaking narrative wash over me. I hesitate to call anything perfect, but this might be perfect. It’s a masterpiece in filmmaking. And the wonder of cinema is a year like this, where something like Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire can both exist, can both be incredible, can both be right at the top of my films of the year list. I can’t exactly say if you liked Parasite, then you will like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but if Parasite allowed you to open your mind to the possibility of world cinema, then perhaps giving Portrait a shot would be a decent place to start to expand your horizons. It’s truly beautiful.