‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a blazing success


2019 was a year that had no shortage of great films. Movies like “Parasite” and “Marriage Story” had viewers in awe of what could be done with storytelling. Then there is “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Directed and written by Céline Sciamma, the film follows a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) as she is tasked with painting a portrait of a woman named Héoïse (Adéle Haenel) without her knowledge since the portrait is for an arranged marriage. 

Cinematic release poster of Portrait of a Lady on Fire for Festival de Cannes.  By Source (   WP:NFCC#4   ), Fair use

Cinematic release poster of Portrait of a Lady on Fire for Festival de Cannes. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use

Sciamma wrote one of the best screenplays of the past decade. Whenever Marianne and  Héoïse appear on screen together, Sciamma’s dialogue fits perfectly with their complicated relationship. What is great about Sciamma’s writing is how clearly she sets up the environment of the film. With her directing, I felt relaxed as I could watch people live their lives without feeling distracted.  

Merlant and Haenel’s performances were outstanding. Their connection as two broken women looking for love is the pinnacle of acting. I have not seen a romance as heartwarming and heartbreaking like the one between Marianne and Héoïse in years. The emotions expressed between Marianne and Héoïse are ones I didn’t think existed before watching the film. They seem clear at first but as the film progresses, Merlant and Haenel brilliantly use their acting abilities to combine different feelings into something that cannot be expressed into words.  

It seemed like an odd choice by Sciamma not to include a score throughout the film and while it makes the film quieter than most movies, it matches the environment and tone Sciamma is trying to create. The placid nature of the island where the film takes place is on full display without a score since viewers are able to take in the beauty of the beach. The conversations between characters also feel more natural without a score since it puts a bigger emphasis on how the characters say their lines rather than what they say.  

Where “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” stands out from other films in its genre is the visuals. Cinematographer Claire Mathon skillfully uses the camera to make every frame look like a painting. She also does a fantastic job capturing the scenery of the ocean and of the house where Marianne and Héoïse are staying. The colors from the ocean and the beach are boldly presented through great lighting and smart camera positioning. Without Mathon’s cinematography, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” would not have the same visual punch. 

After winning Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, it seemed almost guaranteed that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” would be a serious Oscar contender. Unfortunately, when France was selecting a film to submit for the Best International Film category at the Academy Awards, they decided to select “Les Misérables” over “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” effectively ending the chance for the film to get an Oscar.   

Despite the lack of Oscars, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” stands out from other films by being visually stunning, having excellent writing and directing and having one of the saddest endings of all time. It is the kind of ending that will leave your heart burning and tears will be the only way to put it out. 

Final Rating: 5/5   

Ian Ward is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at ian.ward@uconn.edu.  

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