“Love at First Sight,” but Finally with Some Edge

Mia Snow, Managing Editor

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In director Celine Sciamma’s most recent film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the classic tale of “love at first sight” is made into a poignant period piece, but with a dark edge. Set in 18th century France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of young artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) after she is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloise (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who refuses to pose for anyone. With these restrictions placed upon her, Marianne is forced to paint Héloise from memory, gaining her knowledge of Héloise’s features through observation alone. These observations are enough for Marianne to work with, so she paints the portrait of Héloise without her knowledge. As the two spend more time together after Héloise learns of Marianne’s portrait, the film shifts from a suspenseful drama to a fiery romance. 

Though the film primarily hinges on its love story, it also takes the time to explore the deeply personal process of an artist’s creativity. Marianne spends hours quietly observing Héloise in order to finish her portrait, with an equal amount of effort being put into the portrait itself. The portrait of Héloise undergoes numerous drafts, as Marianne constantly makes small changes to her artwork. After the many final results are presented to Héloise, she correctly interprets the subtle differences between each portrait as a reflection of the changing feelings of the artist, Marianne. In effect, the film pushes the idea that all art (even a portrait of someone else entirely) is a reflection of the artist, and an artist can never hide who they really are because their soul always shines through their work.  

These enticing themes also have the privilege of being handled against the backdrop of elegant visuals. With her subtle color palette and strong landscapes, Sciamma succeeds at creating a lush yet uneasy tone, nearly teetering on the ambiance of a medieval ghost story (if such thing exists). One of the most haunting visuals comes during an afternoon when Marianne and Héloise are walking to the seaside, the entire journey seen through the lens of Marianne as she walks behind Heloise’s ghost-like figure. The deeply eerie feelings that come from the film’s visuals and cinematography don’t overshadow the beauty of the subject matter, but both elements are instead are paired together to create emotions unique to this film alone. Despite the movie’s lack of representation during the award season, Sciamma’s ability to invoke such personal and unique feelings in the audience should be applauded. 

At the end of the film, just as the audience thinks a crescendo is coming, it never does. Without giving the ending away, the audience is left with a simple, nearly three-minute-long shot of Héloise. Haenel, who plays Héloise, uses these three minutes and delivers an evocative, soul-crushing performance, all in complete silence. It was then when I realized that Héloise, in this last scene, was going through the same emotions that I was. Just as the portrait of Héloise was a reflection of Marianne, in the end, the audience doesn’t watch Héloise, but watches a reflection of themselves.